Jinan criticised for plan to rebuild historic railway station

Critics deride as front for development Jinan's proposal to rebuild its 1912 railway station

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 August, 2013, 4:20am

Jinan is planning to rebuild its grand old railway station, once the largest in East Asia, 21 years after it was demolished.

But the move by the Shandong provincial capital has attracted fierce criticism.

One reason is its sheer expense: the project will cost more than 1.5 billion yuan (HK$1.9 billion) according to the Jinan Daily. Concerns have also been raised about the replacement's authenticity. The authorities have turned the city's archives upside down and even tracked down the descendants of the original building's architect, but failed to find a copy of the blueprints for the structure, completed in 1912. All it has is a few faded photographs.

Unlike historic ruins being restored on the mainland, the station was not built in traditional Chinese style, but in the Baroque style, and its architect was German, not Chinese.

This was a factor in its eventual demolition in 1992. Following the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, China faced international sanctions and domestic instability. The authorities feared the influence of Western culture and xenophobia was rife in official propaganda.

The old station's German gothic style became a target of Jinan officials. Xie Yutang , then deputy mayor, told local media that the building was a relic of imperialism.

"It reminds me of the suppression Chinese people have suffered in history," he said. "The lofty green dome looks like the helmets of Hitler's army."

The authorities also argued the size and facilities of the station could no longer meet growing passenger demand in Jinan.

In July 1992, the entire station was flattened - but demolition crews were impressed by the quality of the building, which boasted stones of the highest quality and steel beams as thick as an arm.

The architect was 24-year-old Hermann Fischer. How a young civil engineering graduate from Hildburghausen won the job of designing one of the most important buildings in Asia at the time remains unknown.

According to local historians, construction of the station, then known as the Tianjin-Pukou Railway Jinan Station, began in 1908. Fischer stayed in Jinan for six years after the station's completion and married a Chinese woman before leaving for the Philippines.

Almost all details about the building's design and construction have been lost, but the station became well known among Chinese architects for its unique style and graceful lines, and for nearly a century its tall bell tower and green dome were symbols of Jinan.

The demolition was strongly opposed by academics, who filed several petitions begging the authorities to spare the station, but their protests were brushed aside.

Li Ming, director at the Archaeological Institute of Jinan, told the Shanghai-based Dongfang Daily the loss was irreparable. "The old train station changed the history of Jinan," he said.

The station witnessed some of the most turbulent decades in Chinese history, including the demise of the Qing dynasty in 1911, the rise of the republic, the Japanese invasion and the civil war between Nationalists and Communists.

"It was a three-dimensional piece of history that you could touch," Li said.

However, he expressed caution about plans to build a replica of the former station.

"Even if there were a drawing, it is impossible to rebuild the old railway station, because the approach to building has changed.

"Back then, builders used the most simple process to create complexity, but now complex processes are used to create simplicity. The 'soul' is no longer the same."

Other experts have argued the rebuilding project is not all that it seems. The authorities are using the old station's reconstruction as a front for large-scale property development, according to a professor of architecture at Shandong Jianzhu University.

"The project will make lots of land available to build blocks of flats and shopping malls in one of the most bustling areas in central Jinan. That is the real deal," he said, declining to be named owing to the sensitivity of the issue.

"The old station is just an excuse. Many people still miss the old bell tower, and the officials have teamed up with real estate developers to cash in on people's sentimentality."

Fischer's granddaughter was invited back to the city last year to help revive memories of the station. Soon after her visit, Jinan Sijian Group, a city-controlled developer, proposed rebuilding the station and the plan was quickly adopted by the authorities as part of the old town renovation project.

However, the project has yet to be given a starting date.

Chen Tian, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Geographic Sciences and Natural Resources Research in Beijing, said he feared such projects becoming a national phenomenon.

"Local governments should not use the restoration of old buildings as an excuse for new real estate development," he said. "In some very special historic sites, for the sake of tourism, it is reasonable to do a bit of reconstruction. But it shouldn't occur at every site in every city."

Some cities have unveiled ambitious plans to rebuild ancient structures that have long since disappeared. Datong in Shanxi province has announced a 10 billion yuan project to rebuild its ancient city walls.

"Hastily rebuilding historic buildings for vanity and profit not only results in waste, but can further damage real historic relics that survived previous threats," Chen said.

"It will be a nightmare if it becomes a national campaign."