Before I left Los Angeles to move to China in 2006, a work acquaintance who was interested in the country’s history told me, “You’d better go soon; China’s history has almost disappeared.”
Arriving in Chengdu, Sichuan, in the unbearably steamy summer, I nonetheless looked forward to my job teaching English at the university level. I soon realized, as I searched for traces of the city’s 2,300 year history, that the rush to modernization has virtually wiped out Chengdu’s architectural past. There are historic sites that remain, but they are mostly recreations, Disneyfied versions of China’s past for tourist consumption.
Amid the sterile, concrete monoliths that dominated central Chengdu, I was occasionally thrilled to discover small pockets of the past. Over the next several years, as ancient neighborhoods such as 水井坊 Shuijingfang and 大慈寺 Dacisi monastery disappeared under the bulldozer, I documented these areas with my camera. Both areas have now been transformed into upscale commercial and leisure zones, and are no doubt on most tourist itineraries.
大慈寺 Da Ci Si (Temple of Infinite Mercy) was once the largest monastery complex in Chengdu. Located near the downtown shopping area, its current buildings, mostly dating from the 19th or early 20th century, have been preserved. Some of the surrounding narrow lanes, in 2006, still maintained a hint of the past. However, beyond high construction walls lay nothing but the rubble of traditional buildings.
While living in Chengdu I purchased a book of photographs by 周安 Zhou An, titled Chinese Folkways Memory of a City (see illustrations reproduced below). He had set out to document the everyday lives of the residents of the Dacisi area in traditional houses, with much of their activity taking place in the street or lane. The result was a book that showed “…the myriad cultural activities that take place on the streets in ancient Chengdu…. streets were the primary work and leisure places for civilians.”
Here is a selection of photographs taken by 周安 Zhou An in the Dacisi area, scanned from the book pictured above. The photos document the daily life of the area before the residents were moved out, and the district was turned into a tourist shopping and leisure zone.
The book documents a way of life in China that has all but disappeared in large cities: a life lived low to the ground, filled with street activity, in close relationship with neighbors. It was a life replaced with market-rate housing, huge clusters of concrete apartment blocks accommodating a mass influx of people to the cities, and tourist-oriented shopping and leisure zones. “Urbanization, economic development and growing tourism are major factors fueling the transition of commercialized historic zones. However, under different initiative and preservation methods, the integrity of conserved heritages varies.” 
The Preface to Chinese Folkways Memory of a City outlines the clearing out of the residential area:
In June 2002, the resettlement and rehabilitation project was launched in Daci Temple area. Except those newly built and ancient building, those old houses around Daci Temple, which are of area over 250mu, would be demolished. And 25 blocks, including 4,000 households and 10,000 residents, would be involved, i.e. Shamao Street, Qingyun Street, Xizigong Street, East Kangshi Street, Shuyuan Street, Est Shuncheng Street (south section) and Tianxianqiao Street, etc. The area for rehabilitation totaled up to 230,000 square meters. The Daci area would preserve its ancient architectural ensemble and build Chinese-featured low-rise architectural complex, which form the architectural style in the styles of Ming and Qing dynasties and make the area a traditional pedestrian focus of culture and commerce.Xiping, Wang, Preface, Chinese Folkways Memory of a City
Here is what has replaced the historic and once vibrant neighborhood around Dacisi: a shopping and leisure district called Taikoo Li:
The core buildings of Dacisi monastery were preserved (see diagram above), along with six early 20th-century (late Qing dynasty) structures nearby. However, the atmosphere of a real neighborhood where people lived is gone; the “Chinese traditional style” commercial buildings create a pleasant atmosphere, but have nothing to do with Chengdu’s past.
There’s a term for such developments that replace China’s actual history with fake or imagined history: fanggu. Describing Kuan Zhai Xiang Zi (Wide and Narrow Lanes), a prime tourist destination in Chengdu:
“It’s all counterfeit—it’s fake,” said Zhang Xianjin, a retired professor of architecture, when I met him at a nearby teahouse …. “It has no historical value…” The Wide and Narrow Lanes were a typical example of fanggu, he said, a term that literally means “imitating the old,” but has become synonymous with the fakery of historical buildings. Throughout the country, fanggu has been China’s answer to its own destructive past. With few actual relics or old buildings left to preserve, the government has instead chosen to rebuild them as they might have looked in their prime.Beam, Christopher, “Chengdu, China Gets a Modern Makeover,” Travel + Leisure, November 10, 2015
Much of the Dacisi area had already been leveled before I arrived in Chengdu in 2006. I photographed the area over the next several years, as what little traditional street life remained was slowly pushed aside. Here are some of my photos:
5000 years of culture is a term used often here to describe the confusion that often arises when West meets East on the Mainland, but 50 years of destruction is a term not often heard….The damage done to Han culture, the culture supposedly representing the vast majority of Mainland Chinese over the past few decades is immeasurable.
But Old Chengdu is virtually dead. The last remnants of what once a cultural capital are locked in a battle for their lives with the local government, who is more interested in a candy-coated refurbishing of the area than in the 1000 years of culture and history the neighborhood represents. And while the old city is under siege and rampant construction and development turns the city’s waterways into cesspools, the Chengdu Government wanders around in a dreamland.
The old parts of any large city in China are going or gone…. If one were to take photos of the skylines of Shenzhen, Taiyuan and Chengdu, there would be no discernible difference. And there would be no old city to offset the sterility.Matuszak, Sascha, “The 50-Year Communist Assault on 5000 Years of Chinese Culture,” AntiWar.com https://original.antiwar.com/sascha-matuszak/2004/02/28/the-50-year-communist-assault-on-5000-years-of-chinese-culture/
 Yang, Qianran, Success and Failure of Historic Preservation: The Cases of Chengdu, Kawagoe, and Williamsburg, senior thesis. (Brandeis University, 2016).
Yang continues, “while the visitors may be impressed by China’s modernization and rapid economic growth, they are disappointed by the missing distinctiveness of its Eastern culture” (both citations p. 4). Speaking of the Chengdu government’s transformation of authentic historic areas by “degrading them into gimmicks for commerce,” Yang goes on to contrast today’s tourist areas in the city with the neighborhoods’ original functions:
 Same source, p. 4. Yang adds:
Located in a subtropical region, this city has a climate characterized by fairly mild winters and humid summers, [and such] conditions fostered a unique street culture. In the book Street Culture in Chengdu, the author Di Wong emphasizes a combination of physical structures that lined the streets and the myriad cultural activities that take place on the streets in ancient Chengdu…. streets were the primary work and leisure places for civilians. Ordinary residents would formerly hold all sorts of communal activities on these open, easily accessible streets, which granted freedom and interaction to the public. To the performers of folk arts, the street was their stage; to hawkers, the street was their market; to children, the street was their playground; to people of Chengdu, the street was the place where they grew up.(Yang, p. 18)
Most old houses in historic districts were with bad quality and lack of infrastructure, and with the time passing by, the residents in historic districts were often not the owners. This complex ownership and poor living quality made the inhabitants build new structures to accommodate demands of new generations without order. Those reasons made fire protection become a risk, and the deficiency of infrastructure become a problem.
However, this has usually been a top-down process, without participation of local residents:
As the need for local government to get profit from historic district or other cultural carriers, the regeneration is usually in a commercial way. It sometimes makes historic districts lose their own character. Furthermore, it may ignore genius loci and historical significance.
Yin, Hsiaoting, Tsinghua University, China, “Trends of Preserving Historic Districts,” 48th ISOCARP Congress 2012: Issues in the Trends and Methods of Preserving Historic Districts in Today’s China: Case Study of Three Cities.