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Yesterday's architecture part of today's life
Latest Updated by 2006-04-06 10:40:13
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Xu Xiangmu goes with his family to Lianxianglou Restaurant in Shangxiajiu Road, which is famous for its qilou buildings in Guangzhou's old Liwan District, for morning tea almost every day.

Morning tea is a typical Cantonese-style breakfast consisting mainly of dim sum snack-like delicacies and sweet buns, steamed meat with vegetable and pastries. It has become an important part of life for Xu, a 52-year-old electrical appliance shop owner in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong Province in South China.

Xu sees a parallel between his meal and the area where he takes it. "Like morning tea, qilou buildings, or arcade houses, have become not only architectural landmarks but part of life here," he said.

With its protruding structure stretching skyward from the second storey over the sidewalk, qilou were built to feature a traditional urban architectural style that combines Cantonese and Western styles.

Xu's family has been living and doing business in qilou for three generations. A 10-minute walk after breakfast takes Xu back to his qilou, which is also located on Shangxiajiu Road.

Because of the arcade buildings, Shangxiajiu Road seems like a shaded corridor that keeps the shops along the sidewalk as well as pedestrians safe from the scorching sun and rain that characterize Guangzhou's tropical climate.

"The weather in Guangzhou is always changing," Xu said.

"Therefore, qilou are suitable for the unpredictable climate here and provide great convenience for residents."

According to, a website maintained by the Ministry of Culture, the history of arcade buildings dates to about 2,000 years ago in Greece. It took root in China only in the early 20th century.

However, during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, Guangzhou had built "commercial houses of the 13 hong," organizations that dominated the city's old trading centre. And their houses are considered forerunners of Guangzhou's earliest qilou buildings.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Guangzhou began a campaign of urban expansion by widening roads after Chinese businessmen returned from Southeast Asia. These businessmen combined the features of ancient Greek architecture with a Chinese style based on the traditional Cantonese residential buildings known as bamboo tube houses, the website says.

The result gave birth to the unique qilou buildings, which are usually narrow and long in structure, and whose outside walls are richly decorated with Western features.

The style caught on and was later seen also in neighbouring Fujian Province and the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.

The Guangzhou city government started a face-lifting project to protect the old architecture nearly four years ago. Other buildings along Longjinxi Road, Enning Road and Dishifu Road, which are close to Shangxiajiu Road, underwent renovation at the same time. The project ended in February 2003.

As a result, the two kilometres of renovations formed the longest arcade-building street in Guangzhou. "Now it has become one of the busiest commercial areas in the city, and we have seen better business than before," Xu said.

The city's figures bear that out. Shangxiajiu Road has become one of the most regularly visited commercial streets in Guangzhou, with about 400,000 visits per day, almost double the number before the renovation.

Xu said the arcade houses seemed to have lost their charm in the face of rapid urban expansion and random destruction of such buildings over the previous two decades.

Now, besides the increase in business and tourism in the area, the local government has mapped out a protection and upgrading plan, focusing on preserving the remaining qilou and the streets featuring the architecture.

"Since the arcade houses are located in the old downtown area, some of them have been destroyed, or are in danger of being destroyed, in the name of urban expansion," Liu Xiaoming, director of the cultural relics department of the Guangzhou Cultural Bureau, said in an interview with China Daily.

But the protection project involves large sums of investment, and "most of that money comes from government budgets, but we cannot nail down how much it will cost since it is a large project," Liu said.

Statistics from the Guangzhou Cultural Bureau show that the city has 36 remaining qilou streets covering more than 20 kilometres, mainly situated in the city's Liwan and Yuexiu districts.

"Each year we earmark special funds from government budgets for the project, which is expected to last several years," said Liu, who did not specify a time for the completion of the overall project.

Guangzhou Vice-Mayor Li Zhuobin also has said that the protection project is a long-term one. "Guangzhou should protect arcade buildings forever," he was quoted by local newspaper Nanfang Daily as saying.

The original arcade buildings and streets have priority, according to the protection plan, which has also outlined three other major protection areas, each of which will undergo upgrading and renovation.

One is a landscape area along the Pearl River, which runs through the city, and the others are in the western and eastern parts of the Liwan and Yuexiu districts.

The landscape area, which features most of the typical qilou, aims to become one of the tourist sites in the city's old urban centre since it also has a large number of relic sites and traditional buildings.

According to the protection plan, the arcade buildings in the landscape area will be mainly used for business after renovation, and all factories that have contributed to pollution or even had the potential of polluting are expected to be moved out to keep the original building layout.

In the western and eastern parts of Liwan and Yuexiu, where most of the traditional business streets such as Shangxiajiu Road and Beijing Road are located, all new buildings along the qilou streets should be built in harmony with that style of architecture, and those old houses in a deteriorated state are targeted for either outer or inner structural repair.

"One-way streets should be preserved, and the plan strictly forbids destroying any old arcade houses along the street," Liu said.

The local government also is rearranging the functions of the qilou-building streets. "Some will be used mainly for business, and others will be for living," Liu said.

For at least one scholar, however, the plan is moving too quickly. Deng Qisheng, an architecture professor at the South China University of Technology, warned that the renovation of the arcade buildings should slow down.

"The protection project should go step by step, focusing on preservation rather than building new houses in the old urban areas," Deng said.

"We cannot rebuild all in a short time since there are still many qilou houses remaining today," Deng said, suggesting the renovation project should be based on some successful examples.

Deng also criticized proposals made by some urban planners to build new arcade houses in the Zhujiang New Town, a booming commercial area in Guangzhou. "Qilou buildings should be enjoyed more for their historical character rather than their living or commercial functions," he said.

"Qilou buildings are meant to be something through which people can know about Guangzhou's history, not its present."

Editor: Yan

By: Qiu Quanlin Source: China Daily Website
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