You know something is up when – as a customer – you have to be smuggled in and out of a bar. The Drum and Bell bar in Gulou looks shut, the curtains are drawn and a sign attached to the door reads, “Closed Pending Demolition.” The bar staff, though, are still there, peeping out from behind the drapes. Having come to the conclusion that we’re not the police, they unlock the door and cautiously let us in. When we go to take a seat on their rooftop, they politely ask us to duck: a local police officer is out front, taking photos.
According to Zhang Aijun, co-owner of Au Goulot, the bar next door, local police and officials regularly patrol the streets of Gulou to make sure businesses are no longer operating. Zhang and his associates own the business but not the walls themselves. When the local government decided to tear down the neighborhood, deals were struck with real estate owners, cutting some businesses out of the loop.
“They told us we failed to meet their taxation and sanitization standards, and that everything is our fault. They didn’t even mention the demolition at all,” Zhang says. The officials have asked Zhang to negotiate with the building’s owner.
The building’s owner, however, has long since stopped answering his phone. But Zhang refuses to leave. He spends his entire day sitting next to the window in his empty bar, waiting for someone to negotiate.
“We won’t leave until we get a satisfactory answer. Plus, there are many things in this bar. Someone has to keep an eye on them.”
Right now, the entire neighborhood looks like a warzone: photographs, books and other belongings are strewn among the ruins of demolished hutongs. Most of the local residents are unwilling to talk about the situation.
“Of course they won’t talk to you, it’s common sense not to speak to journalists,” says a local who wishes to stay anonymous. “They don’t want to rock the boat. People are scared of the local police.”
However, according to Dustin, who agrees to speak on camera on the condition that we wouldn’t show his face or reveal his family name, many residents are actually excited.
“They’ve been charged by the government their whole life, this is the one time they can charge the government.”
“The only people who wish to protect the neighborhood are in the culture area. The vast majority of the local people see this as the biggest opportunity in their life, because they get a big compensation,” he says.
“The longer they stay, the more money they get. It’s kind of a negotiation. They’ve been charged by the government their whole life, this is the one time they can charge the government.”
Local officials declined our request for an interview, and the specifics of their plan for the area remain a mystery.
“If they don’t disclose their real plan, you can’t sue them or fight them. There’s no goal to fight for,” Dustin explains.
According to several local residents, who wished not to appear on camera, all 200 to 400 families living in the neighborhood’s hutongs must leave before October, at which point the entire neighborhood will finally be leveled.
In 2010, Gulou was Time Magazine’s #1 best place to see in Asia before it’s gone. It now seems that time has come.
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