Beijing Museum Celebrates Tap Water, But Water Quality Is Still A Work in Progress

By Violet Law

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BEIJING – A little more than 100 years ago, a handful of Chinese businessmen set up a water purification and pumping station here in the capital of China. It provided running water to downtown Beijing for the first time.

The enterprise, intended to turn a profit, lasted only three years.  But during the Japanese occupation of China during World War II the water plant was revived. And the plant was the starting point for today’s water system in Beijing when Mao Zedong rose to power in 1949.

The city’s water pipes have deteriorated over the years and now most people boil the tap water before drinking it. But a few years ago the Chinese decided to commemorate the history of running water in Beijing by turning the original pump house into a museum called the Tap Water Museum. There are a few other museums around the world devoted to water. But this one tells the century-old story of water in Beijing.

The museum, built of red bricks with such touches of western architecture as a principal arch and round stone columns, stands at the very spot where the businessmen began providing Beijing’s first running water in 1908, using a steam engine to circulate the water around the perimeter of the imperial city’s walls. Adjacent to the museum building is a pumping station that is part of Beijing’s present water system.

Inside the museum are articles marking key moments in the running water history, including a scroll with the original proposal for the project in calligraphy and architectural models tracing the development of running water in the capital. The museum also displays some of the correspondence and official seals relating to the start-up.

Much of the museum is devoted to touting the efforts of the Communist government in expanding water supply. The latest such endeavor is to build permanent pipelines to move huge volumes of water from the rain-rich south to the arid north of China.

All this had its humble beginnings on the grounds of the museum in the waning days of the Qing Dynasty. The businessmen got the emperor’s approval to sell shares to raise capital to build the system. Once they had the capital they needed know-how. So they imported technology, equipment and experts from Europe. Even the red bricks for the walls of the steam engine room were fired in kilns in Germany.

Today, the old pump station turned museum stands as a testament to the country’s early efforts at modernization and collaboration with the West. The museum is across the street from the Russian Embassy and blends unobtrusively with the modest homes in Beijing’s Clearwater neighborhood.

Before the water plant went into operation, residents relied on wells and nearby rivers. The plant drew water from the Sun River several miles to the east.

By 1910, outdoors faucets had been installed all over Beijing. Out of them gushed chlorinated clean water. Residents could buy tickets and draw water straight from the taps, or have the water delivered to their homes in wooden buckets on horse-drawn carts.

When chlorine was introduced, many Chinese were wary. The water plant had been developed with technology from Europeans, the very people who were burning down palaces around the capital at a time when China could not defend itself. For most Chinese the water seemed too foreign to be good. So the going was tough for the owners of the system. They ran advertisements in newspapers to promote the water. Some of those advertisements and some of the water tickets, printed on rice paper and stamped with bright red ink, are in the museum.

One advertisement, circa 1910, says, “Our Company operates this tap water business with Imperial consent, using all Chinese capital and employing all Chinese staff.  Most enlightened folks like our water. Only ignoramuses would call it ‘foreign water.’”

But the water merchants were no match for the political turmoil that soon engulfed the country in the revolution of 1911. The Qing Dynasty perished and so did the water business.

The museum’s main building, the original red-brick engine room, is flanked by landscaped gardens planted with raspberry trees. Under a pagoda are the remnants of a water collection pool. A sign explains that by the 1930s and 40s, the main source for the plant, the Sun River, was drying up. So the occupying Japanese soldiers began pumping water from an underground aquifer with generators imported from home. A Hitachi generator from that period is on display.

Some replicas of historically significant items were made for the museum’s opening in 2003, including an ornate wrought iron water tower built by German craftsmen and decorated with wind chimes. The tower was dismantled in the 1950s during a campaign by Chairman Mao Zedong to turn much of the country’s iron and scrap iron into steel to fuel the growth of his new society.

When I visited recently, a swarm of workers from the Beijing Waterworks Group, which manages the museum, hovered near the roof, replacing century-old glass window panes.

The museum often draws groups of school children, parents and children and employees of the Waterworks Group. It also serves as the base for the government’s youth educational unit on water conservation.

While I was there, Zhiyong Li, a clerk at an elevator company, was showing his son Shenzhen, a first grader, around the museum. Mr. Li said he wanted to give his son a sense of the origins of the water that comes out of their tap at home.

But most city dwellers in China, including Zhiyong Li and his son, do not drink water straight from the tap. Water coolers are ubiquitous in offices and middle-class homes. And those without home or office water dispensers boil the tap water. And it does not take long for a mineral residue to cake the bottom of a water pot. The history of running water in Beijing remains a work in progress. #

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