SHANHAIGUAN, China—Faced with a drop in tourism, this one-time imperial city near the eastern terminus of the Great Wall came up with an ambitious plan.
It decided to remake itself as a theme park and holiday destination, drawing on its Ming and Qing dynasty past. So bulldozers are grinding away in the old walled city, where workers have built a drum and bell tower and ceremonial archways over roads. New gatehouses rise from the renovated Great Wall along the city's eastern side.
On the drawing boards are hundreds of courtyard vacation homes, shopping areas and venues where tourists can dress as warriors, watch acrobats, listen to Chinese opera and tipple imperial-era libations.
"We're hoping to provide a place for rich people to relax," said Wang Bixiang, deputy general manager of the Ancient Town Protection and Development Co.
As China prospers, officials are seeing historical sites as potential sources of income and are setting off a rush to develop them. Authorities project the cost of rebuilding Shanhaiguan at $335 million, and they plan to tour Europe and the United States soon to seek investors.
But what's slowly arising is a faux re-creation of this city's imperial roots, with new buildings created to look old atop the rubble of the real thing. The pattern is repeating itself across China, leading to the destruction of historic courtyard homes in Beijing and in what experts say are ill-designed restoration projects in Nanjing along the Yangtze River and Changzhou near Shanghai.
"They dismantle the real old buildings, and they build new buildings made to look old. They regard the old buildings as ugly and crowded," said Yang Dongping, a heritage expert and a professor of education at Beijing Science and Technology University.
"We call it, `Present the fake as beautiful,'" Yang said. He added that he believes the wave of historical destruction is of the magnitude of the tumultuous 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, when supporters of Chairman Mao Zedong rampaged through the nation smashing remnants of China's feudal and imperial eras.
The city fathers of Shanhaiguan don't see it that way. They say they're preserving the old along with the new, and billboards proclaim the "Ancient New Town."
"We want to have the flavor of an authentic Ming Dynasty town," Wang said, referring to the era from 1368 to 1644. "There is a trend in China for many cities and towns to preserve and develop their ancient pasts. Only a few have done it successfully."
Shanhaiguan is a natural site for preservation.
In 1381, the Ming Dynasty general known as Xuda, under orders from the emperor, began to build the Great Wall here at the edge of the Bohai Sea and turned Shanhaiguan into a garrison city.
Flanked by the Yan Mountains and near the sea's edge, the city is a crossroads for travel from northern China to the resource-rich northeast.
The past century has been particularly rough. An expeditionary army from eight countries landed in the city in 1900 to quell the Boxer Rebellion, a violent uprising that targeted foreigners. The city was also damaged during China's civil war and the Korean War (1950-1953), when the Chinese army blew up the city's historic drum tower because troops couldn't pull an artillery piece through a road tunnel under it.
"Many ancient buildings have disappeared because of war, natural disasters and the Cultural Revolution. ... If we want to restore the historical appearance, we have to build again," Wang said.
The master plan for the "Ancient New Town" calls for one area to be a "military experience zone," where tourists can dress as ancient warriors and ride horses.
Another lantern-lit area will offer folk arts and include a bird market. A third will have cultural shows and include a rebuilt or newly built Confucian temple, governor's mansion and Korean culture center. Electric trams will carry tourists from area to area.
"We hired a company specializing in ancient architecture," said Guo Zemin, director of the cultural relics protection department of the Shanhaiguan development company.
Potential tourists could come from nearby. Shanhaiguan is within a three-hour drive of Beijing, Shenyang and Tianjin.
Within the walled city, authorities identified 53 buildings they deemed of heritage value. Then they brought in bulldozers to level everything else, forcing thousands of families to relocate, many of them with roots going back centuries.
"They can leave their dilapidated homes and move into new apartment buildings with modern facilities," Wang said. "Everybody is happy. "
The city built 37 apartment blocks to house relocated people and have nearly completed another phase with 35 high-rises.
In fact, many residents are unhappy. Like elsewhere in China, the city's heavy-handed approach allowed for no debate.
"They forced us to move. It's meaningless for me to say whether I'm satisfied," said Yang Shulin, an 80-year-old retiree.
Ding Bo, a retired shipyard worker, said he had mixed feelings about the move. He was glad to be rid of an old home with coal piled high for the furnace in winter, but angry that the city has yet to provide him with a deed to his new apartment.
An overriding feature of redevelopment across China is a lack of public participation before bulldozers come roaring in and disputes between residents and city officials over compensation for the land.
"There were fights between people forced to move and city officials," said an employee at a private clinic, who declined to give his name. "The government took the old courtyards. They are aiming to resell the old courtyards at a very high price."
Several senior party leaders in Beijing got behind the city's plan and urged unusual speed, partly because the neighboring city of Qinhuangdao is one of six venues for the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympic Games and is likely to host at least nine soccer games.
In an aspect common to such schemes in China, the city spent nearly $100 million before it sought investors to determine if the project was viable.
City fathers are keeping their fingers crossed and coming up with new tourist draws. Workers are toiling on a mountainside to carve five stone Buddha statues, each 265 feet tall. Price tag for the Buddha park: about $60 million.
"They will be the world's tallest Buddhas," Wang said, beaming assuredly.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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