Traditional homes bulldozed by modernity

By Pushpa Adhikari, IPS, Asia Times, 16 March 1999

BEIJING—China is changing, largely because of the ongoing market reforms, but here in the capital, the transition from old to new can sometimes be very literal.

Zhang Qing, 75, knows this too well. She is about to lose her tiny home in Xicheng district, and while she has filed a petition in the district court to stop the move, she is fast realizing it will probably go nowhere.

The authorities are clearing her neighborhood of the old housing buildings to give way to skyscrapers. And that, they have told her, is that.

Zhang's house is actually part of one of Beijing's hutong, the traditional residential complexes of low-slung quadrangle buildings and narrow streets that have been home to generations upon generations of the same families.

In these hutong were close-knit communities in which members looked out for one another and kept each other company.

According to many Beijing residents, the hutong, which have been part of the capital for the last seven centuries, help give their city a character all its own.

In recent years, however, many of the hutong in Beijing have been flattened and replaced with department stores, subway stations and commercial as well as modern residential buildings.

Some authorities have said that while they would rather not demolish the hutong, there is simply not much space left to accommodate the infrastructure that they say the capital needs more of.

The word hutong is taken from a Mongolian term that means well for fetching water. In ancient Beijing, water was scarce and people used to live near wells to make the task of getting water easier.

When they built their houses, they always left a narrow passage between any two structures. As more and more people gathered near the wells, hutong were formed.

When the Mongol empire was established in 1267 with Beijing as capital, the hutong were constructed in such a way that they gave the impression of being a dice board—spread from east to west and north to south.

There were some 1,200 hutong in Beijing by the time of the Qing Dynasty—the last dynasty—with about 600 more in the city's outskirts.

Official statistics show that there were 3,200 hutong in Beijing in 1944, but only 900 are left today. In the Xicheng district alone, more than 260 hutong have disappeared since the early 1970s.

Any day now, Zhang says, the time will come for her hutong. The bulldozers that will do the flattening are already near her neighborhood, and she knows that no matter how loudly she wails, the machines and the men on them will not be deterred.

Like many others before her, Zhang will be forced to accept some compensation from the government and find someplace else to live.

Zang Yue, a Beijing University history student, says she used to live in a hutong that had housed her entire family, as well as other clans. She remembers it as a very nice place to live in, but it has since been demolished. Zang's family was instead given an apartment in a modern building.

While she says she misses having her own space in which to entertain her friends, Zang prefers where she is living now. Besides, she says she had hated the old-fashioned heating facilities and water system in the hutong and enjoys the modern conveniences of the family's present apartment.

Many Beijingers also say that while they are reluctant to see the hutong disappear, they understand that the government needs to build structures that can house more people and accommodate the growing needs of businesses here.

Still, they say they wish that some of the hutong could be preserved for future generations—and by that they do not mean miniature replicas like those of ancient houses being peddled in the streets.

Officials from the Beijing Institute of City Planning and Design say the city has listed 25 historical and cultural protection zones, 19 of which are hutong and residential quadrangles.

Some observers, though, say that the increasing pressure from the market economy may well alter these plans in the future, even as Beijing remakes itself to be a tourist mecca and busies itself with refurbishing old palaces and cleaning up parks.

To people like Zhang Qing, however, the hutong is more than a historical artifact or something for camera-toting tourists to ogle at. The fear of Zhang and others like them is that the way of living they have known for so long may never be replicated anywhere else.

Zhang says she is already old and not about to change her habits at this stage and declares that she is not scared of the authorities. It is, she says, a question of living or dying.

(Inter Press Service)