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Central Lhasa gets facelift with ‘Tibetan characteristics’
TIN[Friday, December 31, 2004 20:26]
Renovation work began in the Tibetan capital Lhasa this autumn along the main tourist streets facing the east side of the Potala and along most of Yuthog Lam (Chin: Yutuo Lu) running from the Jokhang to the Potala Square in. The renovations are superficial in nature, and largely involve mounting Tibetan-style moulded fascias onto the facades of buildings that were only recently completed in a contemporary Chinese style. This project seems to indicate a newly emerging sense of ethnically correct aesthetics among the Tibetan and Chinese authorities, at least concerning prominent locations that attract most attention from tourists. It also appears to be an attempt to temper criticism, in particular from UNESCO, about the recent deterioration of Lhasa’s cityscape. While the work itself is of a very low standard and represents a mere Chinese pastiche of Tibetan style, the project misses the opportunity to employ Tibetan-run companies or workers in an activity where they would have expertise and could be included in the construction boom in the TAR. Instead, as with most construction projects in the TAR, the renovation work is done by out-of-province construction companies, employing exclusively Chinese migrant workers.

Construction sites on Kharna Dong Lam
Construction sites on Kharna Dong Lam
The renovations started on 20 September 2004 and, although scheduled to be completed by the end of November, were ongoing in December. The renovations sites are mainly located along both sides of most of Yuthog Lam, i.e. the section that runs from Dosenge Lam near the Jokhang all the way to the Potala Square, as well as among the buildings on the east side of Kharna Dong Lam that face the Potala and the Potala Square, and both sides of the western end of Dekyi Shar Lam (Chin: Beijing Dong Lu ), in between Kharna Dong Lam and Nyangdren Lam (Image 1).

Most of the buildings now being renovated are recent constructions, particularly those along Yuthog Lam, which was completely rebuilt in recent years (Image 5). As one component of this aesthetic overhaul, the fluorescent plastic palm trees, a typical urban landscaping feature in most Chinese towns and cities, have been removed (Image 9).

Corner Yuthog Lam/Kharna Dong Lam - Summer 2003
Corner Yuthog Lam/Kharna Dong Lam - Summer 2003
The fronts of all of these buildings along the streets in question have scaffolding erected against them and all the renovations are taking place simultaneously. The outer surfaces of ceramic and cement are drilled away from the facades of the modern buildings, and pre-fabricated fascia mouldings in a ‘Tibetan style’ are attached to iron supports (Image 10). The new facades are then painted in uniform Tibetan-style motifs (Image 15). Observers note that the fascias appear to be manufactured on the spot by Chinese workers (Image 16). Pillars at the ground levels of buildings are also being drilled or chipped down in preparation for an application of more Tibetan-style designs (Image 12).

This massive effort to renovate a recently reconstructed section of Lhasa appears to signal an emerging sensitivity for Tibetanised aesthetics among the leadership. During an official press tour organised for forty-four Beijing-based foreign correspondents at the end of August 2003, Jampa Phuntsok, the new chairman of the TAR government who took office in April 2003, gave an intimation of this current programme of renovations by stating that Yuthog Lam was “lacking taste” and a “Tibetan style” .

Freshly painted new Tibetan facades
Freshly painted new Tibetan facades
His comments were likely to be a reaction to recommendations made by the committee monitoring the implementation of the UNESCO Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, which urged the Chinese authorities to review its urban development plan for Lhasa. The comments were made during the 27th session of the UNESCO’s world Heritage Committee held in Paris from 30 June to 5 July 2003. The committee made a series of recommendations to the Chinese authorities “to mitigate the negative impact on the World Heritage value of this property caused by development pressures” and called for a national policy to protect all remaining historic traditional buildings in Lhasa.

(See: http://whc.unesco.org/archive/2003/whc03-27com-07bcorre.pdf)

That the renovations began just over a year after Phuntsok’s statement and eighteen months after UNESCO’s comments suggests sensitivity to international criticism, particularly from supra-national organisations. Recognition by bodies such as UNESCO validates PRC policies towards heritage, and the authorities’ stewardship in general. Many observers speculate that these aesthetic concerns might also be related to preparations for the 2008 Olympics, during which Lhasa is likely to receive increased attention from visitors to the PRC.

It appears that the Chinese authorities are ready to plough considerable amounts of funding into cosmetic construction projects in order to reverse the sinicisation of architecture in Lhasa, even if this only concerns a very concentrated, yet highly visible tourist section of Lhasa. The question remains, though, whether similar initiatives will be taken in other cities of the TAR, such as Shigatse or Tsetang, where the recent flurry of building activity is unabashedly in a grandiose modern Chinese style.

Chinese workers on the scaffolding
Chinese workers on the scaffolding
Although ‘Tibetanisation’ is at the heart of the current renovation drive, work is being done entirely by Chinese migrant workers (Image 17). There is no sign of any Tibetan participation on the construction sites. As such, the actual implementation of the construction continues to follow the general trend of using out-of-province Chinese construction companies and Chinese (Han) migrant workers, with Tibetans playing a marginal role, if any, at best. Tibetan companies and workers continue to be marginalised from participation in the construction boom. Similar trends are seen in the production of Tibetan-style handicrafts, sculptures, thangkas (religious painted scrolls), door hangings and so forth, which are increasingly becoming dominated by Chinese migrant workers, often producing goods of lower quality, but at lower prices, thereby undercutting local Tibetan producers of these goods.
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