Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Countdown to the end of Nanluoguxiang

In the Beijinger today I wrote about the potential end of Nanluoguxiang as we know it:

The tale is as old as it is predictable, almost not worth rehashing. But here goes. About five years ago, Nanluogu Xiang was an alleyway frontier, quiet and understated. When a few residents of hutong houses got the bright idea to rent their spaces to bar and boutique owners, the neighborhood began its gradual evolution into a pulsating and contemporary nerve center, a "hub of creativity," as tbj's Iain Shaw put it last November, "a culture -- at least, one side of what modern Beijing culture is." But the bandwagon of consumers and window-shoppers that followed inevitably carried the lure of commerce, money. And sure enough, behind them rode the bandits of Greed.

Give it a read if you're interested, but here I'm going to play a bit of Devil's advocate to my own piece.

I sympathize with the Chinese landlords on Nanluoguxiang. The shop-owners I talked to, i.e. tenants of said landlords, like to say that the landlords don't know what's good for them, that they're short-term thinkers. They say that Nanluoguxiang was an average little alleyway before they came in with their nifty bars and chic boutiques, and that when they leave -- replaced by commercial retailers -- Nanluoguxiang will lose all its charms.

Perhaps that's true. But I'd like to suggest that maybe some landlords -- I can't say out of the 200 or so in the area how many, exactly, feel this way -- like things to be what they were, before the tourists began filing in with their handbags, shrill laughs and annoying propensity for picture-taking. They want their quiet neighborhood back, those nights they could kibitz with their childhood friends, the ones they suffered with during the Cultural Revolution, survived and thrived with. At the age some of the landlords are at, I can imagine they'd want some peace and quiet. (And don't say they should just "move away" -- these are their homes, after all.)

I understand that most of them probably welcome commerce, which puts unfathomable wealth directly in their pockets. That makes it very easy to paint them as the villains in this story, when in fact they are just average people who want the best for themselves. Does that make them greedy? Well, maybe, though "self-invested" is perhaps a better term. Then again, who isn't a bit greedy?

Imagine if your house and the neighborhood you grew up in, in matter of a few short years, got overrun by foreigners -- many of them often drunk, to say nothing of the locals -- and tourists who kept taking photos of your doorway, and carousers who'd pee on your wall. Would that not get, after a while, frustrating? And would you not yearn for an older, more sophisticated crowd, one that would bring class -- and money -- without all the rowdiness that comes with youth and alcohol?

Yes, you would want that. You too would raise your rent. (The contrarian argument to that, of course, is that a lot of really good people would get driven out of the area; it's a crapshoot, and it sucks.) You would see the Nanluoguxiang ordeal in a completely different, grayer, light.

In any case, it's a terrible situation all around, and while I'll certainly rue the day Nanluoguxiang turns into Qianmen, I'll try not to overreact.

I would probably still rant though.

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