New Construction Crowding Out Beijing's Hutongs

Fifty years ago, Beijing had 3,000 hutongs — narrow alleys flanked by old, one-story houses and crowded with people. Some of the alley communities have existed for 800 years. But as Beijing modernizes, the alleys are being displaced by shopping centers, hotels and office towers. Now 1,000 are left.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

In China's capital, Beijing, people who care about culture are worried about the destruction of historic homes and neighborhoods in the name of development. It's not just tree-shaded lanes and quaint old buildings that are being obliterated. It's a way of life.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn is a long-time resident of Beijing's traditional neighborhoods and reports on some of the places in the ancient city he calls home.

ANTHONY KUHN reporting:

Standing on most downtown streets here, there's not much about the layout or the architecture that tells you you're in Beijing. The concrete canyons and the traffic could be those of just about any modern metropolis, but duck off the main thoroughfares and into one of the city's few remaining hutongs and it's another city, another era. A hutong is a sort of lane or alley unique to Beijing. Both the Chinese word hutong and many of the hutongs themselves date back to the Yuan Dynasty more than seven centuries ago.

(Soundbite of bells ringing)

KUHN: The hutong I live in is near the Forbidden City; that's where China's emperors used to live. My hutong's about 10 or 15 feet across and 300 yards long running east to west. On the west end, there's a bicycle repairman. He carries his tools on a cart. There's also a little shack selling lamb kabobs. The human scale of the hutongs really gives you an intimate connection to the daily life of the city and its people.

(Soundbite of bottles clinking)

KUHN: There goes a beer deliveryman with his loaded bottles clinking behind him on his tricycle. There goes a family walking arm in arm. Both the man and the woman seem to be carrying purses. There goes the scrap (unintelligible) who buys old appliances and furniture. Sounds a bit like he got up at 3:00 in the morning, probably because he did.

(Soundbite of horn)

KUHN: The buildings here are all one-story high, most with gray brick walls, tiled roofs and wooden doorways. Quite a few of them are (foreign word) Beijing's traditional courtyard homes. Mao Tse-tung used to live up this hutong next to mine; that was before he became Chairman Mao. Beijing became China's capital in 1949. There were more than 3,000 hutongs then. There are now only about a thousand left and they're disappearing fast.

(Soundbite of hammering)

KUHN: In a hutong across town on Beijing's south side, migrant workers in camouflage and hardhats are demolishing old homes. They stand on the walls; each blow of their sledgehammers sends bricks and dust raining down. Half-demolished bedrooms and kitchens lie exposed as if a giant had ripped the roofs off. But many hutong homes are crowded and lack the most basic facilities such as heat and plumbing. To many poor Beijingers, the destruction of the hutongs is nothing but progress. When the government demolishes residents' homes, it gives them apartments on the outskirts of Beijing or it gives them some compensation to buy a new home.

Nearby Mah Wengam(ph) and his neighbor are patrolling the street for the neighborhood watch committee. They've been neighbors for most of the past half century. Their homes are still standing, but the neighborhood's slated to go. I asked Mah how he feels about moving from his house in the hutongs to an apartment building.

Mr. MAH WENGAM (Hutong Resident): (Through Translator) I want to stay in my house. I absorb the earth's energy there. I can't absorb it in an apartment. Old folks feel cooped up in apartments. It's stifling.

KUHN: The people who object to the destruction of the hutongs and hutong homes the most are the intellectuals and owners of historic residences. People like Quashi Min(ph). Quashi Min was born in Beijing to French and Chinese parents. She's a celebrated defender of the hutongs. She's documented their riches and protested their destruction. But the hutong she grew up in recently fell to the wrecking ball, along with her family home. She casts a pained look at the new building rising up from the site of her old home.

Ms. QUA SHI MIN (Beijing Resident) (Through Translator): Our memories and the city's memories are disappearing. I was born in (foreign spoken) hutong. I remember where I played ping-pong when I was small and where I went to the movies and where I went to do homework with my classmates. Now these places and these memories are all gone.

(Soundbite of cement mixers)

KUHN: Qua watches as cement mixers rumble in and out. They're laying the foundation for what will be an exclusive club. The Beijing city government claims that preserving Beijing's historic quarters is an important part of the overall plan for the city's development, but with land prices in Central Beijing hitting new highs, it seems development is just too profitable to slow the bulldozer's advance. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

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