My heart is moved by all I cannot save: So much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those who, age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world
Published on 9 June 2011
Since Beijing’s earliest days, its narrow lanes and alleys known as hutongs have been an intricate part of the city’s identity. Once made up almost entirely of these culturally-significant areas, Beijing today is rapidly modernizing, and the old quarters are becoming increasingly threatened by both economic and social forces.
Some efforts are being made to protect hutongs, like last year’s successful campaign to save the quarters surrounding the city’s Drum and Bell Tower, as well as the “historic zones” implemented as a response to criticism by conservationists prior to the 2008 Summer Olympics. But in spite of these measures, according to UNESCO, more than 88 percent of Beijing’s old residential areas have already been destroyed, most during the last three decades.
A new three-part documentary titled “Fate of Old Beijing”, produced for Asia Society’s China Green project, tells the story of hutongs now and prior to China’s rapid modernization. The series, which was created by award-winning filmmakers Jonah Kessel and Kit Gillet, explores not only the vanishing world of Beijing’s ancient hutongs, but the realities of life within the narrow streets, and the future for these irreplaceable areas.
The documentary is prefaced by a four-minute virtual tour through several Beijing hutongs, an emulated rickshaw ride that meanders down alleyways past new and old buildings, painting an excellent portrait of the ancient neighborhoods today.
“If we had to choose one place to best represent Chinese ancient culture, it should be the hutong,” says He Shuzhong, Founder and Chairman of Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center (CHP). “I see hutongs as a cultural circle, a cultural space, a way of life.” In the film’s first chapter, titled “A Disappearing World,” several longtime hutong residents share their dismay about the changes to their ancient neighborhoods, as well as the difficulties of living in them today.
“There used to be eight fish ponds here, flowerpots with flowers inside them all around the edge,” says one man, pointing to his surroundings. “Now everything is gone. As soon as the old people passed away, the old things left with them. Our courtyards used to be filled with flowers, birds, fish and crickets… This was all twenty years ago, twenty-five years ago. Then, the courtyard was beautiful. The house wasn’t much, but the environment around it was magnificent.”
The film’s second part, titled “David vs. Goliath,” illustrates the dynamics behind the demolitions of hutongs and courtyard houses, part of a nationwide urbanization trend that relies on close, highly-profitable relationships between the Chinese government and construction companies. The chapter also demonstrates the devastating effect the demolitions have on hutong owners, including the story of one former resident, who explains:
“They told us that the hutongs had to be torn down due to road construction, but they really wanted more commercial expansion. The sequence went like this: a year in advance, the government informs you that your house is scheduled for demolition. Six months in advance, the construction company comes to survey and evaluate your house and to discuss compensation. In these six months, you also have to find a new place to live—the government doesn’t provide any support in finding a new home. The companies came as soon as you moved out and put a big hole in the roof so you couldn’t change your mind and move back.”
The final chapter, titled “Beyond the Alleys,” discusses the differing ideas about how best to conserve the remaining hutongs, and the argument between preservation versus renovation or complete redevelopment. There is also disagreement about the authentic value of “fake hutongs” built anew to emulate the old buildings, and to what level—if at all—they represent Chinese culture.
The dramatic razing of Beijing’s hutongs has long been a complex and controversial topic. There is no doubt that certain neighborhoods are in desperate need of upgrades like indoor plumbing, while a rapidly-increasing population has made modern living a priority. However, in the process of renovation, many longtime hutong residents have been forcibly evicted and moved to the city’s outskirts without fair compensation, and conservationists argue that the cultural cost of erasing such a significant part of Chinese history is too great.
“When we talk about hutongs, we are talking about places of cultural heritage,” says Wu Lili of CHP. “These sites are often located in city centers and are highly valued: historically, economically, and culturally. But as development has increased, people are rapidly forgetting the cultural value of the hutongs.”
As continued development seems certain for Beijing, a reasonable compromise would be a more thoughtful plan that considers preservation of Chinese culture on par with other development objectives. “Fate of Old Beijing” does a wonderful job of raising awareness about hutongs, which is the first step toward saving these vanishing Chinese heritage sites.
Click here to watch “Fate of Old Beijing”
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