By: Chua Chin Hon, China Bureau Chief
BEIJING - QIANMEN, a historic neighbourhood being revamped into a tourist destination, will not be ready for business in August. That makes it one of the few high-profile projects in Beijing to miss the Olympic deadline.
This will be a blow for some of the retailers who are hoping to cash in on the surge of Olympic visitors - an estimated two million Chinese and 500,000 foreigners - though officials and developers involved in the project said they were more concerned about quality than timing.
|OUT WITH THE OLD: This photo shows Qianmen Street in August 2006, when it was a busy four-lane road. Some say the area is the last bastion of old Beijing charm.
Mr Tian Yun, chairman of Beijing Emperor's Avenue, the real-estate company that is redeveloping Qianmen, told reporters: 'Tourists can visit Qianmen Street, but shops here will not be ready for business.'
He made the comments on Tuesday when the media was given the first sneak peek into a 9.5-billion yuan (S$1.9-billion) redevelopment project that has caused considerable controversy and heartache in Beijing in recent years.
The Qianmen neighbourhood, located south of Tiananmen Square, dates back to the Ming dynasty and is seen by some as the last bastion of old Beijing charm.
But the area has also fallen into disrepair in recent years, prompting worries that the slum-like conditions in some parts of Qianmen would embarrass the capital city and the country during the Olympics.
A government-approved redevelopment project called not only for Qianmen to be restored to its former glory, but also for the area to be updated for 21st-century travellers.
The centrepiece of the project is Qianmen Street, a busy four-lane road that has been converted into a 840m pedestrian street that will soon house well-known global and domestic brands in neat rows of low-rise buildings featuring traditional Chinese architecture.
But to do that, large swathes of old houses east of Qianmen Street had to be demolished to make way for a new road - a move which outraged some preservationists and local residents.
When asked about this, Mr Tian said his project did not destroy one single historic building or hutong, the narrow alleyway which gives old Beijing much of its charm. 'This is a very big misunderstanding based on untruthful rumours,' he added.
He also said that old shops and brands long associated with Qianmen, such as the Quan Ju De roast duck restaurant and the Da Bei photo studio, will make a comeback.
But the inclusion of foreign brands, such as Apple, Starbucks, adidas and Nike, in Qianmen Street could spark controversy yet again.
Starbucks had to remove an outlet from the Forbidden City last year following an outcry sparked by a prominent mainland newscaster, who slammed the coffee chain's presence there as a smear on the country's historical legacy.
This article was first published in Life!, The Straits Times on June 21, 2008.