Text by Zhang Hong
Wang Jun is a journalist who has worked with Xinhua News Agency for more than two decades. Wang began working at the Beijing-based news agency upon graduating from college in 1991 when China was experiencing its fastest and most massive urbanization in history.
In Wang’s computer is one of his treasures — an old picture of Beijing City taken from atop the White Pagoda in Beihai Park in 1912.
“What a beautiful city!” every time he looks at the image his pulse races. “More than a million people were making a living there, yet it was fundamentally a forest. Every courtyard had trees, and from that high point the city looked like a sea of green. The blue-bricked and grey-tiled courtyard houses were hidden beneath the green canopy.” Wang was reminded of what I. M. Pei said when the Chinese-American architect first climbed Jingshan Hill in Beijing: “I am Chinese.”
On July 13, 2001, Beijing won the bid to host the 2008 Olympic Games. After witnessing the jubilant celebration on Chang’an Avenue late that night, Wang was filled with peaceful wishes as well as worry for the city. On his way back home from work, he noticed that Tu’er and Xiang’er hutongs (traditional alleyways), from the 13th and mid-14th centuries respectively, had disappeared without a trace. That same year, permanent residents of the city passed 20 million, and the former residence of well-known 20th-Century architectural historian, architect, city planner, and educator Liang Sicheng (1901-1972), and his wife, architect and poet Lin Huiyin (1904-1955), was razed. Statistics of China’s third national cultural heritage census showed that 969 unmovable cultural relics had vanished.
After Beijing’s successful bid for the 2008 Olympics, 280 billion yuan was earmarked for preparations. “We were so moved after hearing the news,” Wang recalls, “because it meant that the door of the country would remain irreversibly open. It was an honorable event, but at the same time we worried what the city would become after the large investment was spent.” All his worries and thoughts on the problem later inspired his bestselling Beijing Record, a Physical and Political History of Planning Modern Beijing.