“Historic, ancient, once prosperous, once rundown, and now a vital shopping and tourist precinct, Qianmen Street has roots in the Yuan Dynasty of the 11th Century and its destiny in the future.”
Qianmen Street – rebuilt from historical photographs
In 2007, the road was rebuilt from historical photographs for the 2008 Beijing Olympics and is now a 1.4-kilometre-long historical tourist and shopping area. It is the second-longest walking street in Beijing after Wangfujing Street, which is also a pedestrian shopping street. The China Guide describes Qianmen Street as a beautiful restoration of Beijing heritage.
The traditional buildings now house shops with Chinese brands as well as non-Chinese brands that include Canon, Starbucks, and an H&M clothing store. In other parts of the street, KFC and McDonalds have found a location for the Chinese version of their fast-food outlets.
While there is new, there is also old, with the 143-year-old Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant closing to coincide its renovations with the rest of the neighbourhood. The oven fire in the restaurant had not gone out since being built in 1864 – the restaurant made sure that the fire kept burning throughout the renovations by retaining the embers in an ancient cooking vessel on-site, which was consistently monitored.
Over the nearly century and a half open, the restaurant has developed an immense following and expanded to an eight-restaurant chain throughout Beijing as a result of its crispy brown roast duck meat being divine and melt in the mouth delectable. Before the renovations, the restaurant could not meet capacity and increased its size by 1000sqm. However, people still queue onto Qianmen Street today.
The traditional design of Qianmen Street makes it a part of a concept that links Beijing’s origins and development with a north-south central axis. When the Yuan Dynasty built its capital Dadu on the site of contemporary Beijing over 700 years ago, construction was around a north-south axis tangential to the east side of Shichahai. This axis, which also runs through Zhengyang Gate, the Forbidden City and Coal Hill, form the city’s backbone today. Qianmen Street’s location is just south of Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.
From the street, looking North, is the Zhengyang Gate, with its poles standing upright placed across the road and an ornate span connecting them. With the impressive Archery Tower, beyond. The tower is at the southern parameter of Tiananmen Square.
Two trams, replications from early photographs, currently serve the street. Previously abandoned from use in 1966, they were reintroduced in time for the Olympic Games. The tram tracks run north to south in the middle of the road for trams to take tourists from the northernmost point to the southernmost point.
The new trams have a fresh, clean feel inside with their pale wooden interiors, and the exteriors replicate the design of the previous era. The street is 1.4 kilometres, so it is only a 10-minute ride before reaching the southernmost point of the road. The tracks can continue no further because dissecting Qianmen Street is the busy six-lane Zhushikou Street, with cars zipping past at a pace. A six-foot metal fence protects any would-be pedestrians from walking out onto Zhushikou Street.
In all, it took one year to reconstruct Qianmen Street, and to restore it to its former glory, remaining the same, but modernised, keeping the characteristics of the Qianmen area and the City of Beijing. There’s much history there, with some businesses being able to claim hundreds of years of transactions on the street. The renovations were achieved through a series of studies, discussions, and revisions, and reference to numerous historical photos from the 1920s and 1930s, which was the street’s heyday.
In total, 52 decrepit buildings came back to life, moreover the renovations were completed to a high standard with traditional Chinese architecture, their history prominent in the restoration of their grey facades, elaborate wooden archways, and in the street ornaments.
Qianmen Street is a street reborn of a past heritage and is of immense future value to the people of Beijing.
Today, potted trees line the street, interspersed with seats for those who want to rest and take in their surroundings. There is no great hurry to accomplish anything here: that is a charm of the street. Historical, modern, thrumming with life. How could anyone resist it?
My other stories from travelling in China
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