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The past has said goodbye to us

Beijing artist Ou Ning on progress, the Olympic Games and the elimination of tradition
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bpb: Jointly with Cao Fei you did a research and filming project on Da Zha Lan, a traditional quarter in the center of Beijing. Why did you choose Da Zha Lan?

Ou Ning: We are always concerned about the areas with high density of architecture and poor people in the center of expanding metropolitans in China. From our point of view, this phenomenon is a brother of the social, political, economic and cultural problems brought by China's urbanization process. In 2003, we had a documentary and research project concerning such an area named San Yuan Li in Guangzhou, a major city in South China. The project was part of the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003. In 2005, we got the financial support from Kulturstiftung des Bundes to research the fast expanding Beijing pushed by the 2008 Olympics. We spent over a month visiting and investigating different places around the capital. In the end, an area, named Da Zha Lan, close to Tian'anmen Square became our destination. It's a slum located in the very heart of Beijing, full of aged architecture and migrant people with low income. It is exactly what we have been looking for.

bpb: What are the main problems in Da Zha Lan today?

Demolition and rubble are part of everyday life in Da Zha Lan (© Ou Ning)

Ou Ning: The main problem of Da Zha Lan is that it is decaying at an amazing speed. It used to be the most important commercial area in Beijing. During the Ming and Qing Dynasty, it was the most active area of old Beijing, full of shops and patrons. Even after the start of the socialist period in 1949, it still kept many stores and facilities, as a witness to the prosperity of the capital. Things started to change during the 1990s when Beijing moved its center to the east for new space of its expansion. Large amounts of investment swarmed to Chaoyang District in the east dueto its close distance to Tian'anmen Square. In contrast, Da Zha Lan must not have buildings higher than the ancient architecture in the Forbidden City. Therefore, unbalanced development of different areas in Beijing appeared. The east is changing everyday while the south – where Da Zha Lan is – stopped its development steps. It is the conflict between historical protection and city development that Da Zha Lan has been suffering from. What's worse, the government itself is not capable of carrying this big burden while China's property rights and tax system didn´t give civil capital enough confidence to invest in this area. As a result, the municipal and public facilities like the ones in Da Zha Lan can't be updated on time. Elites kept moving out. The rent and life index kept falling. Migrant people with low income swarmed in. The former golden commercial area in the end became a slum.

bpb: Beijing is undergoing a tremendous change. Since the 1990s the city is booming: skyscrapers, new business and commercial districts are rising almost everywhere. How do the citizens of Beijing feel about these changes?

One of the old inner courtyards (© Ou Ning)

Ou Ning: Most Beijingers are happy to see Beijing become a metropolitan. Compared with their former houses – courtyards shared by many families, with great risk to catch fire and without private bathrooms – they obviously prefer those modern apartments with well equipped toilets and kitchens, and security guards. Maybe they still feel nostalgic about their old homes from time to time but few would really like to move back. They like to work in high-end office buildings and go shopping in super malls. Only during traditional festivals like the Chinese New Year will they remember Da Zha Lan and buy something of old style as a souvenir there. Ironically, only very rich people can afford those old courtyards today. They bought one as a whole and moved the habitants out. Modern facilities are added to make it comfortable to live in. When everything is trying to be standardized, the "hutong" – old, narrow alleys with courtyards alongside – life has become a luxury. It's a tremendous cost to chase after modernization for a city or a country. We sacrificed our history and memory for the so-called progress. We invested enormous social and environmental costs for the so-called development. When we embraced modernization, we realized the past had said goodbye to us. When we had spent all we had for a new dream, we realized what we had was actually invaluable. This is the paradox of history.

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bpb: Where do you see the main improvements by modernization and city growth for the people?

For the moment, the demolition in Da Zha Lan goes on (© Ou Ning)

Ou Ning: Modernization and urbanization have largely changed people's spirits and views. With strong economic drive, the government confiscates more rural land for city development or introduces new urban planning for old city areas. This process is entangled with severe conflict of interests and views. Peoples' consciousness of their rights become stronger in such a rapidly changing age. They get more involved in public affairs to protect their own interests. They demand to build a justified and equal society. Citizens dare to criticize the government's urban planning policies more and more and fight for their rights when inequity happens in the compensation process of confiscation and relocation. A citizen society that spontaneously supervises the city with a sense of self-identity and ownership, though with lots of trouble in the beginning, is forming steadily. This will be the most important achievement for China.

bpb: Beijing will host the Olympic Games in 2008. Will this huge event only imply new constructions sites like the Olympic Park? Or will it change the urban mentality of people in Beijing as well?

Ou Ning: The 2008 Olympics will be an accelerator for Beijing's urbanization. It has not only brought symbolic architecture but also stimulated Beijing´s real estate market and increased the prices. It has not only improved the city's air quality and transportation but also brought more population. It has not only aroused the taxi drivers' passion to learn English but also made IT, media and creative industry hot careers. It's a huge opportunity for China's central government to rebuild the nation's identity in the age of globalization. It also comes as a political opportunity to exchange criticism. Nevertheless, the upcoming Olympics will not only increase Beijingers' confidence hundreds of times but also indulge Chinese people into crazy imagination of the dragon's resurrection and the dream of a super nation in the 21st century.

bpb: Besides Beijing, China has one more booming mega city: Shanghai. What are the main differences in terms of growth and urban development between the two cities?

Ou Ning: Shanghai is an economic city. It doesn't have an obvious center in its urban planning. Beijing is a political city. As the center of power in China, it's expanded with ring roads surrounding the imperial palace. Shanghai's urban area has smaller roads, denser road nets, better traffic conditions for walking. Beijing features large roads as the backbones of transportation with less density of regional roads. Traffic jams happen often and there is little space for pedestrians. Shanghai cherishes western values with a strong commercial atmosphere. It's devoted to continuing the spiritual heritage from early capitalism and keep a fresh image in today´s global competition. Also on the path to internationalization, Beijing still believes in the enormous power of tradition and its prospects of regeneration. It has values of more variety and interests with a booming cultural industry. Shanghai stays at a secondary place in view of politics with a relatively conservative attitude and limited space for political development. Beijing is China's political center. The important organs of the nation are all here. Thus, it's magnificent and it can decide on China's destiny.

bpb: Mr. Ou Ning, what do you like most about Beijing?

The Liangshidian street in Da Zha Lan (© Ou Ning)

Ou Ning: Beijing's casual and frank personality is my favorite. To live here means thatI can follow my heart without chasing after the latest trend and unified standards. In Beijing, you can live isolated or join as many social networks as you can. No matter what kind of person you are, what kind of life you live, nobody will consider you strange and bother you. In addition, Beijing keeps both its old traits and develops new ones at the same time. This conflict is very charming. It brings inspiration and passion to your life everyday. This is the main reason why I moved from Guangzhou to Beijing last year.

Further information: Da Zha Lan Project

Interview by Sonja Ernst
Translated from Chinese by April Zhang

Ou Ning

Ou Ning Zur Person

Ou Ning

Ou Ning was born 1969 in Zhangjiang. The artist and designer lives and works in Guangzhou and Peking. Together with Cao Fei he did a filming and researching project on Da Zha Lan in Beijing. For many years, the historical quarter south of Tiananmen Square was the commercial center of Beijing. Today it is an extremely crowded and poor area with inadequate supply of water and electricity. The Da Zha Lan project was part of the exhibition "beijing case - totalstadt" at the ZKM (Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie) in Karlsruhe (Sept. 2006-Jan.2007).

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