BEIJING, Dec. 29 -- Xintiandi, a trendy bar/restaurant area in Shanghai, lures visitors with its charming shikumen (stone-framed) houses, many of which were actually rebuilt just seven years ago.
But just 10 minutes walk from the historic Yuyuan Garden area, an 80-year-old shikumen house, where I was born, will be bulldozed in the coming months under a city plan to widen a nearby road.
The house, built by my grandfather, bears many fond family memories.
Blending Eastern and Western architectural styles, shikumen, like siheyuan (quadrangle) houses in Beijing, are truly Shanghai's signature buildings.
A witness to the city's glamorous yet turbulent past, shikumen are unrivalled by many high rises shooting up across the city either culturally, historically or esthetically.
Unfortunately, many shikumen houses, along with myriad other historic buildings, have been razed as urban renewal projects over the past last 15 years.
This unprecedented demolition has sparked an outcry among many conservationists. And that outcry seems to have finally been heard. Two weeks ago when the city government announced the names of 144 streets on a protection list, making any future road revamping or house demolition in those areas more difficult or impossible.
This is surely a positive move in preserving the city's rich cultural and historic legacies after so much has been wiped out. But it would have been much better if such a protection list - a longer one - had been drawn up and enforced 10 or 15 years ago, as so many more of the city's buildings, streets and neighborhoods could have been saved.
For a city as big as Shanghai, the current list is clearly too short. It does not even protect the many wonderful shikumen houses, like the one I lived in as a child.
Everyone makes mistakes, but repeating mistakes is not just foolish, it is also unforgivable.
Zheng Zu'an, a researcher at the history institute of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, has pointed out three major blunders during the city's urban construction over the past century.
The dismantling of Shanghai's city wall after the 1911 Revolution was disastrous, Zheng wrote in a recent edition of the Journal of Social Sciences.
The wall, built over a span of three centuries starting in 1553 in the Ming Dynasty, would otherwise be a top attraction in Shanghai, just like the ancient city wall in Xi'an, Shaanxi Province.
The second major "historic folly" in Zheng's words was the filling of many waterways crisscrossing the city center. Otherwise Shanghai would be more intriguing with a maze of creeks.
Today, only street names such as Zhaojiabang and Xuejiabang (bang means creek) remind people that these were once creeks.
It is ironic to see property developers, such as those in Xintiandi and Xujiahui, dig ponds in recent years to landscape their areas, while so many natural waterways were ruthlessly buried.
Zheng also lamented at the many historical buildings that have been torn down over the past century, including landmark cinemas and markets.
The old Songshan Cinema, for example, used to attract the attention of many passers-by thanks to its unique arched roof. It was demolished a decade ago. The site is currently occupied by a modern shopping and residential complex known as Times Square.
In the pursuit of modernity represented by skyscrapers and wider streets, our cities have been paying a high price for erasing an important part of their own history. And such change is irreversible.
Development is not about destroying old buildings and putting up new ones. Conservation is a key part of development.
To learn from all these mistakes, policymakers really need to be visionary, looking well into the future rather than their five years in office.
Our governments should also direct more funds toward preserving cultural and historic sites.
And if you cannot preserve them, don't just demolish them. Leave it to the next generation, just like the decision we made not to unearth the rest of the Qingshihuang Mausoleum with current technology.
The government should simply add more to the protection list, since so many of the historic sites have been removed and there are not many left.
While we should celebrate the street conservation list announced by the Shanghai municipal government, we should also mourn the many cultural and historic legacies that have been wiped off the map.
It is time to make a pledge that we will never repeat such mistakes.
(Source: China Daily)