CHINA / Regional

US jazz culture symbol faces demolition
By Wang Shanshan (China Daily)
Updated: 2006-08-05 08:35

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 planning.

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)