A renowned symbol of American
architecture and jazz in Beijing faces demolition on Sunday, adding to concern
that too much of the city's past culture and diversity is being erased in the
quest for modernity.
American Douglas Monitto spent the last years of his life importing the
materials to build a replica of a 19th-century Louisiana mansion on the
outskirts of Chaoyang Park in eastern Beijing. Monitto's widow, Mary, said they
spent more than US$1 million to fly everything from a New Orleans jazz club, The
Big Easy, into China, after being encouraged to open the music outpost by local
authorities and signing a 13-year contract in 1998.
Mary Monitto said she received a notice from Chaoyang Park in January
ordering her to vacate the mansion within two weeks, even though the contract
runs until 2011.
After fruitless efforts to meet with Chaoyang Park officials, Monitto
received a new order on Tuesday stating the building would be demolished this
weekend. Water and electricity were cut off on Wednesday as workers erected a
four-metre-high wall around the club, bulldozers at the ready nearby.
The elegant, verandah-rimmed architecture, along with its jazz frescoes that
were painted by US artists and its once-freewheeling stage for improvised music,
is now surrounded by demolition squads.
"In Europe, city planners use a very broad palette of cultural and
architectural considerations when they decide what to build and what to destroy
in any development project," said Anu Leinonen, an architect and expert on urban
The Big Easy is not only a unique example of antebellum American
architecture, but also a symbol of Beijing's globalized jazz scene.
"In Europe, planners would consider how to preserve and incorporate it
(existing architecture) into a new project," she said.
If the government has other priorities, "people at the park can talk to us at
least," said Mary Monitto.
For months park officials avoided a face-to-face meeting, but they organized
a 10-minute consultation on Friday, she added.
Tian Jixian, general manager of Chaoyang Park, told China Daily the
authorities had followed the contract, under which the lease rights can be
voided for an important government need. In this situation, the authorities were
required to notify the club three months in advance. "We told them more than
half a year ago," he said, referring to the January notice.
He added that a "Peace Plaza" would be built on the site of the club, but
declined to identify the investor or whether the new project would be a
commercial or government venture.
He said the park would follow governmental regulations on compensation.
Monitto said the park proposed compensation of 1.4 million yuan (US$175,000)
on Friday, but the Monittos' investment far exceeds that figure.
At a swan-song party this week, jazz singer Yao Yixin said: "The Big Easy was
the earliest American jazz and blues venue in Beijing. Its destruction will
change the city's cultural map."
"The Big Easy has been an icon of American jazz music and culture in the
city. It is terrible that they are tearing it down," said Eugene Marlow, a
professor at the Baruch College of the City University of New York, who is
writing a book on jazz in China.
(China Daily 08/05/2006 page1)