Brian's Blogs

Celebrating Tap Water in Beijing

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There’s a book that was published in America a decade ago entitled “101 Places Not To Visit Before You Die”. The sales pitch appears to be that the author has taken it upon herself to go to truly awful tourist destinations ... so you don't have to.

For its entry about Beijing, it scathingly talks about the Museum of Tap Water. “In 2001 it was decided that 150 new museums should be opened in Beijing in time for the 2008 Olympics… Hence a museum devoted to the fascinating history of ... tap water.”

I felt I just had to go there; but once I had arrived I had to wonder if the author had ever visited the establishment herself, or had simply read up little fragments on the internet and written her comments accordingly.

The museum is across the street from the Russian Embassy and stands unobtrusively in the middle of the Qingshui Yuan apartment complex. For a start, the Museum of Tap Water is not its actual name in English (it’s called the Water Supply Museum, though on the ticket it is also called ‘Waterworks Museum’). The Museum of Tap Water is a literal translation from the Chinese. But I guess something called a Water Supply Museum doesn’t have that same mocking ring to it, does it?

The history of Beijing's piped water supply began in 1908, with the founding of the Jingshi Tap Water Co. A year earlier a fire had broken out at the Empress Dowager Cixi’s palace and because of a lack of water, the fire got out of control and destroyed many valuable items. Cixi ordered the construction of a water plant to create a more effective way to fight fires that used constantly to plague Beijing; and a handful of businessmen decided to set up a water purification and pumping station which used a steam engine to circulate the water around the perimeter of the imperial city’s walls.

Unfortunately, the best laid plans of mice and men can so easily come to naught when something like a revolution gets in the way. The enterprise lasted for only three years, after which time the Qing dynasty was kicked out. However, during the Japanese occupation of China during World War II the water plant came into its own.

The grounds of the museum, containing the original engine room, are made up of landscaped gardens planted with raspberry trees. A large lawn area is surrounded by local apartment blocks looking down onto the remnants of what was a revolutionary idea for its day.

The museum itself, reflecting the influence of western architecture with its principal arch and round stone columns, was originally the steam engine room. It was built of red bricks, which were fired in kilns in Germany, and stands as a testament to the country’s early efforts at modernization and collaboration with the West.

This steam engine room entered service in 1910. With a height of 12 metres it was equipped with two sets of horizontal double-acting plunger steam engines producing 441KW to drive two pumps – which in turn distributed 18,700 cubic metres of water per day. Disinfected water was pumped into a water tower and then distributed to the water supply network by gravity.

The museum boasts 130 historical artefacts, as well as 110 pictures, 40 models, and a miniature tap water filtration system.

The exhibits outside all have English captions; but unfortunately the same cannot be said for the inside of the museum. But then, do you really need a caption to tell you that you are looking at a water meter or a bucket?

The museum-proper consists of a series of rooms through which you can wander at will. On one wall there is a photo of an early president of the company; to his left is a photo of some employees of the company in 1948; there’s also a photograph of the giant spittoon-looking vessels that adorn the outside of so many of Beijing’s historic monuments. They, of course, were always on standby storing water in case of a fire.

The museum also displays some of the correspondence and official seals relating to the start-up, as well as items marking key moments in the history of the capital’s piped water system, including architectural models tracing its development.

Some replicas of historically significant items were made especially for the museum’s opening in 2003, including an ornate wrought iron water tower which had been built by German craftsmen. Unfortunately the original tower was demolished in the 1950s when Mao Zedong wanted to turn the country’s scrap iron into steel to fuel the growth of his new society.

There’s also a display showing buckets of water standing next to a public water tap, which had been stationed at the end of a hutong, or alleyway. By 1910, outdoor taps had been installed all around Beijing, supplying clean chlorinated water. Residents could buy tickets and draw water straight from the taps, or have the water delivered to their homes in wooden buckets on carts.
It is said that when chlorine was introduced to the water, many Chinese were against the idea. After all, the water plant had been developed with European technology, those self-same people who had burned and pillaged the capital just a few years earlier. Unsurprisingly, their product was not too popular to begin with. So the company owners took out ads in papers promoting their “healthy” water saying it was much safer than the well water that had been used till then. Some of those advertisements and some of the water tickets, printed on rice paper and stamped with bright red ink, are on display.

Outside in the gardens the chimney to the steam engine room still stands. It was built in the 1920s, is 20 metres high and has eight sides; and it was built using the traditional Chinese construction method of grouting the bricks using sticky rice! All kinds of jokes spring to mind, but the fact remains that it appears as solid as the day it was built.

In 1931 the Beijing water works started to use electric power and the operation of the boiler room and chimney came to an end.

A little bit further on you come across the remnants of a water collection pool where water was sent after disinfection. Looking over it is the original intake pavilion built in 1908, still in good condition. One of its main features is a circular pillared temple built as a shrine to the Buddhist goddess Guanyin. There is also a carved tortoise and snake sitting on either side of the Bodhisattva, though you have to peak through a gap in the padlocked doors to catch a glimpse of them.

In summary I would have to say that Beijing’s Museum of Tap Water is one of the more unusual tourist attractions gracing the city. But owing to its location, it’s unlikely you will come across it by accident.

{From Dongzhimen Subway station, leave by exit B and head northwards up the 2nd Ring Road. Take the second turning on the right, then the second turning to the left. The museum is then on your right.}

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