Volunteers fight to save old Tianjin

Source:Global Times Published: 2009-11-17 23:26:03

The demolition of an old building at No. 34 of Yunnan Road.

Youshanli community buildings that have now been demolished.

By Wang Dong

A group of volunteers in Tianjin are continuing their fight to preserve the city's Five-Avenue Area, a famous historic and cultural conservation district.

Established in 2006, Tianjin Architecture Heritage Protection Volunteer Group have organized over 30 events in an effort to stop the planned destruction and rebuilding of the area. On Saturday, they gathered outside the Grand Theater of China on Harbin Ave in Tianjin, each armed with a camera. They then walked through the district and took photographs of old buildings along the streets.

"We are doing this all because of our love for the city," explained Mu Sen, founder and head of the volunteer group.

In November last year, Tianjin Municipal Government announced a tourism development project for the Five-Avenue Area. The project was to construct a tourism area that contained new shopping centers, entertainment facilities, restaurants and hotels.


The implementation of the plan led to the fast disappearance of many old buildings in the area. Many structures in Youshan Li and Zhenyuan Li communities were razed to the ground.

Residents of the Xiaoguangming Li, Runxin Li and Xiannongdayuan communities were removed and the doors and windows of many old buildings torn down.

To stop the destruction, the volunteer group invited experts from different cities to inspect the situation and made an urgent appeal to protect the historic and cultural area. The letters of appeal were sent to government departments in Tianjin.

The volunteers' efforts paid off. In June, Shan Jixiang, the chief of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage and investigation teams from the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development and the State Administration of Cultural Heritage came to Tianjin.

The demolition stopped.

The street of the historic and cultural district should not be changed casually," stated Xu Pingfang, president of the Archaeological Society of China.

"There should be a complete and detailed protection plan for a historic and cultural city like Tianjin," he added.

Tianjin Municipal Government invited many experts, including Xu, to evaluate and discuss new development plans. They then decided to protect more old buildings instead of tearing them down in a revised plan, according to Xu.

However, not everyone is in favor of the move. Living conditions in some old buildings are poor with four or five families sharing a dilapidated two-story house.

"We'd like to move if the government could give us proper compensation for demolition," said Zhang Yinzhou, a resident who has lived in the Five-Avenue Area for more than 40 years. He and his wife share a room of no more than 15 square meters.

"The government should improve the living conditions of residents in old buildings by repairing them and reduce the number of people living there, rather than remove all the residents and demolish the buildings," Mu added.

"A historic and cultural area without its original residents in it is like a man without soul," he said.

"Old buildings are the witnesses of history, no matter how they look now," argued Chen Zhihua, an architecture professor at Tsinghua University.

Chen said that he was sorry that many Chinese cities had demolished their old buildings and replaced them with modern buildings or pseudo-classic buildings because of immediate financial gain.

"It is a shame!" Chen said, "the history will all be gone."

The Tianjin heritage protection volunteers are hoping to keep some of Tianjin's history intact.

Members of the group hail from a range of different backgrounds and include college students, engineers and retirees. There are almost 30 permanent members in the group who have assumed responsibility for photography, collecting architectural plans, investigating history and policy research. The volunteers not only keep records but also take practical actions to protect the old city.

"They are very brave and full of responsibility," Chen said about the volunteers.

"Citizens and experts should get more involved in the protection of historic and cultural sites," he added.

The Five-Avenue Area

Nestled in the heart of Tianjin are five avenues that constitute a rectangular region commonly known as the Five-Avenue Area.

The area in fact has six main streets: Machang, Munan, Dali, Changde, Chengdu and Chongqing.

The region covers a total area of 1 million square meters, boasting a collection of over 2,000 garden houses of various styles ranging from English, French, Italian, German and Spanish, all built around the 1920s and 30s.

Because of its location, the Five-Avenue Area became home to numerous political dignitaries and celebrities of the time and serves as a historic record of the up and downs of China's modern history.

Two presidents and six premiers of the Republic of China (1912-49), Herbert Clark Hoover, the 31st President of the United States (1929-33), famous educator Yan Xiu and industrialists Zhou Xuexi and Li Zhuchen resided here in the 1920s and 1930s.

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