Barbarians at the Gates

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There is nothing wrong, in principle, with the sensitive adaptation of a historic building for fresh purposes, but the news that parts of Beijing’s Summer Palace are to be turned into a luxury hotel and club is rather distressing. There can be no doubt that Aman Resorts, the company behind the redevelopment, will handle the refurbishment with great style, but that is hardly the point. The project itself is in questionable taste.
The Summer Palace was sacked by foreign troops in 1860, and again in 1900. With its partial conversion into extravagantly priced facilities for international tourists and executives, foreigners will once again be putting their feet up in its historically resonant surrounds. Chinese people—the vast majority of whom will be financially excluded—will once again be looking on forlornly. I wonder if the British authorities would give permission for a wing of Windsor Palace, or a part of the Tower of London, to be turned into a Ritz-Carlton.
China’s most globally recognized monument, the Great Wall, has already lost its mystique because multinational companies are allowed to use it for any lame stunt their marketing teams care to come up with. Should Fendi, to take one recent example, really be allowed to commit the vulgarity of staging a fashion show on the Great Wall’s ramparts? Why must we endure the dreadful sight of the elderly Karl Lagerfeld tottering along China’s heritage showpiece, air-kissing Eurofops and B-list celebrities?
The commercialization of the Great Wall has already raised issues that anyone interested in China’s monuments should be thinking about. But in the meantime, the Summer Palace has been invaded. Again.
[Correction 26/08/08: I’ve just learned that the hotel is to be built immediately outside the Palace, in buildings that were once used by imperial guests awaiting an audience with the Empress Dowager. Thus tourists will not be living it up in the Palace proper. but they are at the gates—specifically the East Gate. And clearly the buildings that the hotel will be housed in remain of historical significance. They really ought to belong to the public.]