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Vanishing act

Beijing's rundown storefronts are concealed behind walls as China puts best face on for the Games

By Patricia Wen
Globe Staff / August 10, 2008
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BEIJING - This should be a golden season at the Kaiqin Wu's "Heavenly Peak" motorcycle shop. With car use severely restricted as part of the governments' effort to limit pollution during the Olympics, sales of bikes - motorized or not - have been soaring in Beijing.

But business has gone steeply downhill at Heavenly Peak. Blame it on the wall.

Not that one, but the 8-foot brick wall Chinese authorities have erected down the south side of Luomashi Boulevard, obstructing a row of rundown storefronts, including Wu's, and the alleyway "huttong" housing of the neighborhood. Walls like it have been built in many parts of the bustling city, as some 500,000 foreigners have come to town for the Games - part of the government's pursuit of perfection, albeit sometimes a Potemkin perfection, in the way the ancient capital presents itself to the world.

"It is all because of the Olympics," said Wu, 33, standing on the sidewalk between the wall and her store. "They wanted to make the street look prettier."

The view is rather different on the other side of the street, where some 10 stores are doing brisk business in all manner of two-wheelers. And the reason is quite simple: Customers don't have to peer around a wall to find them.

"Having a wall definitely has a bad influence on business," Quntao Niu said, sympathizing with Wu's plight, as she stood outside the "Family Treasures" bike shop that has a direct view to the street. "Here, it's easier for customers to see us."

The Chinese have spared no expense in remaking Beijing for the Games; it is, in many parts, a city made new. The government defends the wall along Wu's commercial strip - the exterior of which has been painted white and gray with Asian architectural touches - as a necessary part of a massive reconstruction project in the Xuanwu district, a large residential and commercial area just south of Tiananmen Square.

Along Luomashi Boulevard, authorities have asked thousands of residents and shopkeepers to move, so they can modernize this central part of Beijing with high-rise apartment buildings and new street-level stores. But many people have remained, unimpressed by the compensation checks offered by government-approved developers. And so up went the wall.

"They want to pressure us to leave," Wu said as a few customers milled around her shop.

The government, however, sees the structure as beneficial, referring to it as a "guard wall" that will ultimately protect pedestrians and others during construction.

"The wall is not only for the beautification of the surroundings of the city for the Olympics," said Wenguang Zhi, deputy director of the construction department in Xuanwu district, who responded by e-mail to the Globe's questions. "The main concern is over the protection of the city's environment, safety of the field work, convenience, and safety of passing pedestrians and other factors."

He said a "great majority" of people in the area have moved, though "there are individual shops that have not reached agreement to move, resulting in delays."

He said the government agencies that oversee the demolition-relocation programs are working with residents and store owners to negotiate agreements on the "basis of equality" and voluntary cooperation. When the reconstruction of that part of Quanwu is completed, he said, "the wall will be replaced by greeneries, plants, or aesthetic fences."

But some residents, walking along Luomashi Boulevard, saw only one possible motivation for the wall - preparations for the Olympics. They noted that the wall stretches almost the entire half-mile length of the south side of Luomashi Boulevard, an area where many people have refused to leave. There are wall segments on both sides of other thoroughfares in the Xuanwu district, and some went up as recently as a couple months ago when the neighborhood remained full of people and no construction had begun.

"The government didn't have enough time to get everyone to move," said Zhang, a 40-year-old museum worker who only gave her surname. "So the wall went up for the Olympics. It is just to make a more beautiful environment for the city."

From her motorcycle shop, Wu recalled the day when government workers showed up with truckloads of bricks, offering no advance notice. Wu and other shopkeepers pleaded with them to stop. The wall, they said, would ruin them. Some residents, Wu said, staged a protest in which they placed chairs to block the construction. But then the police came, the crowd dispersed, and protesters were taken away, said Wu. She pleaded with the workers to, at least, create a opening in the wall at the front of her store, so passersby might be lured by the sight of her brand-name motorcycles. But workers said that could not be done.

Wu, who is married and the mother of a 5-year-old boy, said she made calls inquiring about who was responsible for the wall. Eventually someone told her to complain to a government office. But she never went, and does not see herself lodging a protest.

"It would not do any good," she said.

Meanwhile, business is painfully slow; sales have gone from about 10 bikes a day, to, at most, two. She used to keep her store open from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., but now she closes at 8 each night. It pains her to think she is missing the surge in business, as the government allows car owners to use their vehicles only every other day.

She said her only customers now are those who already knew her location or who live in the residential areas along narrow alleyways right behind her. Like many people in this neighborhood, she understands that many structures here are in serious need of repair, particularly some of the old-style housing behind the stores. Yet, it remains home to generations of families and leaving is not easy.

She said she is willing to move if the developer offers her more money, though she declined to say what amount would be enough.

"I want to get on with my life," she said. "Looking at the wall is very depressing."

Patricia Wen can be reached at wen@globe.com.

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