Signs of the Fall



Cynics of development often joke that the name "China" comes from the word "拆那" (chai-na), or "tear that down." Recent events in Kashgar, as many news outlets already have announced, reflect this reckless attitude. In the past several months, the character 拆-- scrawled in black paint-- has been appearing on the mud-brick walls of Kashgar's Old Town, a collection of tightly cluttered Uyghur houses, some hundreds of years old. Indeed, the Chinese state has condemned these buildings in a $440-million-dollar plan to demolish and replace some 85% of the historic district with modern apartments, public schools, and open plazas. Likewise, the government will relocate nearly 200,000 residents to new flats on the city's outskirts. The local tourism bureau will then preserve what remains of the Old Town as an ethnic zoo outdoor museum.

This is not the first time historic Kashgar has been assaulted by modernity, nor will it be the last. A main thoroughfare now cuts through the heart of the Old Town past Id Kah Mosque, the largest in all of China. A towering statue of Chairman Mao, also the largest in all of China, salutes Kashgar over the city square. A creaky Ferris Wheel disrupts the skyline of precariously stacked homes. The government, however, has defended bulldozing much of this district by pointing to issues of safety-- houses are overcapacity, many of them without plumbing or electricity. More importantly, officials invoke the memories of last year's Wenchuan disaster to warn Kashgar's denizens; most of these structures would collapse in a major earthquake. A drastic overhaul, they say, is desperately needed. (Nevermind the fact that in Shanghai this week, a very modern thirteen-story building completely fell over, without the help of any tremors.)

Nonetheless, others believe that China fears these warren-like neighborhoods, which supposedly breed conspiracies of separatism and violence. As The New Dominion writes, the state regards social space as instruments of governmentality; what it cannot apprehend must be done away with, and by refashioning organic sprawl into regimented compartments, it can monitor and mold more obedient citizens. Thus, this project interrupts the social cohesion that ties the traditional Uyghur community together-- the narrow networks of transportation traversed by donkeys and scooters, webs of commerce conducted between small businesses and their customers, pockets of respite reserved for unveiled women. These connections will be severed, and when they meet again, they will have reconstituted Uyghur identity in a way that we may have never seen before... or what we have already witnessed in rebuilt cities like Korla, Turpan, and Urumqi.

Other websites obviously have given this issue far better thought than what I have repeated here. What the new order will bring is less clear because none of these sources mention what will physically rise from the rubble. As far as I know, no one has posted official plans yet, only mere descriptions. Besides taking the first two photographs above, my friend CCG, however, had the prescience to document this billboard while walking around Kashgar, which describes the building proposal for Chasa Street (恰萨街). Basically, in this plan, the city will straighten the major pathways within the block. The first story, comprised of neatly squared stores, will attempt to replace the current commercial district in the area. Now, people must pass through a labyrinth of homes in order to reach the inner core, but in the future, anyone will be able to access these shops easily from the street. The project aims to cover the entire first floor with a roof, which will eliminate the traditional sunlit courtyards of Uyghur houses. Instead, I guess that street lamps will light these alleyways, which is so very environmentally friendly. A grassy surface will top the first floor. Four outdoor staircases, one from each major road, will lead to this second level, which opens to four lawns and possibly a central fountain, all enclosed by five-story apartment buildings. Finally, the project offers eight different types of apartment layouts. This plan organizes social life vertically, instead of horizontally, which dramatically cuts down on daily interactions. To illustrate this point, I have this memory from college my freshman year, where I lived in a dormitory connected by hallways, while my friends lived in apartments connected by stairwells. The camaraderie felt in my dormitory versus theirs was palpable and infectious, and it is that same camaraderie that may disappear in Kashgar.
Translated from Uyghur:
Reconstruction Plan for Hazardous Housing in Kashgar's Old Town, Chasa Street
The red areas represent residential areas. Stores will occupy the entire first floor, while apartments will take up the other five floors above. Safety is guaranteed in these apartments. They are easily convertible, with many different layouts to choose from. The first floor is for stores. The office designed everything to maximize space and convenience for the owner. All the buildings will be surrounded by roads, which will facilitate commerce. Each store is furnished with two doors. Also, the buildings will be decorated in the style of traditional Uyghur architecture, in order to attract more visitors.
Current Layout:

Commercial Area, First Floor:

Overall Apartment Plan:

Individual Apartment Layout, Façade, and Aerial View:


Those reconstruction maps are incredible. Absolutely incredible.

If there were any sort of tacky analogy that could be made for this situation, it's bad plastic surgery. Maybe done with partially good intentions. All "modern" and "cutting edge" and "latest technology." But the end result is just bad. So bad.

What strikes me is how they included the layout of the current neighborhood, as if to say, "see, this is the mess we are fixing." But frankly, the current layout far more elegant. Like a fractal.

Well done.

It is important to document such change with photos and drawings so that people can get a real "feeling" for what is happening.

Ideally, that would mean shooting pictures of the before and after, and interviewing residents about how they feel before and after.

Hope someone has the desire and the means to carry out such basic documentary work.

Congrats on the Danwei link!

Sigh. This reminds me of the wretched tear down and rebuild of the old shopping zone south of Qian Men gate in Beijing. Kashgar will look like cities in the former Soviet central asia republics with giant Le Corbusier style building and park blocks stretching for miles, overwhelming.

It looks like the permiter of the projects might be lined with car parking?

Such old and dilapidated districts have always been picturesque for non-natives but they do mask serious poverty. It's a shame a solution somewhere between these two extremes can't be found.

I don't think foreign jounals covered the event fairly. I don't think the gov wants to eliminate the trace of Uyghur people.

hi, here is someone's blog:
15662354 .blog .sohu .com/119035505.html
this is a forum of Uyghur people:
www .xjmkh .com .cn/viewthread.php?tid=13684&extra=&page=1

Very informative post. Just came across your blog from the mention on Danwei. Drop me an email when you get a chance. I would like to discuss reposting some of your work on

I sense a PhD topic...;) You've probably read this already, but reminded me of Timothy Mitchell, chapter 3 "an appearance of order" Also russia did something very similar in tashkent in the 1880s, it's all in the books I sent you.

A disaster. The floor plans make me cry.

I've been to Kashgar and I loved getting lost in the labyrinthine old neighborhoods. Yet I feel that in a way, whatever the Chinese government is always wrong (in the eyes of Western commentators).

If they leave the old town, Westerners will complain that Uyghurs live in segregated poverty and backward conditions while the Han enjoy modern accommodation.

If they destroy the old town and build modern housing, Westerners will complain that Han Chinese are destroying the Uyghur way of life.

If they preserve some of the old town, Westerners will complain that it is an ethnic zoo. Nevermind the obvious satisfaction that Westerners like you and I get from observing these places.


Seems you've been in China a bit too long, Traveler, and are beginning to think in Black and White.

It doesn't have to be an either/or solution.

The Chinese government could drop its plan to demolish the Old Town outright, and do 101 other things instead:

*** Condemn certain buildings/dwellings that are truly dangerous, and make sure that every one of the families who are then homeless are given good housing nearby, along with clear legal proof that they own their new dwelling. Residents need to see for themselves that they are not going to be dumped far away in sub-standard housing.

*** Offer new housing and a bonus to Uighur families that are willing to move out on their own, rather than outright evicting them from housing that may have been in the family for hundreds of years

*** Set up a committee of government officials, representatives of the Old Town and town planners who understand the concerns of the residents, and come up with a long-term plan -- say over 15 years -- of how to render the Old City safer, less crowded and more modern. I've been there, and I would assume that a good portion of it could be made much more liveable with good repair work and needed investment.

I agree with you that Western commentators are a difficult lot to please! But I submit that the important players here are the residents of Kashgar. And you can bet your bottom dollar that they have not been consulted in any meaningful way about the future of their Old City.

I simply do not believe that a representative group of local Uighurs would opt for the solution that is now pending. Kashgar is the spiritual home of Uighurdom for many post-1949 Uighurs, and it is not creditable to assume they would vote to demolish it.


Regarding the first suggestion, isn't that the third option in Traveler's comment? But aren't whoever left over in any "old" buildings part of an "ethnic zoo" then? What's the definition of "sub-standard" housing? Compared with these mud buildings?

Regarding the other two suggestions, easy said than done. What if some folks simply do not want to move, for whatever reason?
That's why in the West we have the "Esteem Domain" law, don't we?

Just see how we "gentrify" the inner cities of some US cities? Well, some real-state developers simply buy the land/old buildings, demolish them, build nice condos, then yuppie white young people move in, driving out the low-income families, most of them are racial or economic minorities. When did the "democratic" Western governments (local, state or federal) provide any "bonus" for these low-income families to move out voluntarily, and actually ensure that when they move out, they do not live in "sub-standard" buildings in some "far-away" places?

Sorry, democracy and capitalism don't always go hand-in-hand, in particular when you belong to a "minority", whether ethnic, racial, _economic_ or sexual.

I am so tired of the "self-righteous" and "smarter-than-thou" pseudo-liberal white folks going around the world and telling us how they should run their governments and live their life!

Incidentally, don't forget the "scandal" that was (shall we say, remotely?) linked to Obama, due to the corruption conviction of a white real-state developer in the South side of Chicag who was a major donor and political supporter of Obama?

Don't tell me that the election of Obama would change the lot of poor blacks and minorities living "public projects" in the South Side of Chicago?

Would you want to preserve these "public projects" as part of the culture and history of the South Side of Chicago?

Culture is a living thing and it evolves. Some old stuff has to die so that new stuff could emerge and thrive. Some old stuff soon or later belongs only to the museums,

Bruce, you make some good points, but imagine the effect of an earthquake like Bam experienced in 2003. If the Uyghur neighborhoods collapsed while the Han neighborhoods survived relatively undamaged, you can bet it would be a PR disaster for Beijing. Again, I don't support this decision, but the alternatives aren't necessarily much better.

I remember reading in Lonely Planet about old town Lijiang in Yunnan. It said that most of the shopkeepers there were Han, but many Naxi were making good money by renting their old old-town home and living in an apartment elsewhere in the city.

Unfortunately, the Kashgar plan as is doesn't look like it would provide any income opportunity for the current residents aside from a relocation payment.

The most ironic part of this all, if it weren't the Old City, but rather somewhere in the West, this would be hailed as an example of the future of mixed-use development. Truthfully, it's not such a terrible complex in and of itself, especially with what looks like a park covering that first floor, but the destruction is what makes it untenable.

Such a shame what a rare thing in China some actual old style culture