A Walk Through Beijing's Vanishing Hutongs

Michael Meyer in Dazhalan neighborhood i i

Michael Meyer has a local peddler fix his shoe in DaZhalan, a 600-year-old neighborhood in Beijing. Frank Langfitt/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Frank Langfitt/NPR
Michael Meyer in Dazhalan neighborhood

Michael Meyer has a local peddler fix his shoe in DaZhalan, a 600-year-old neighborhood in Beijing.

Frank Langfitt/NPR

Beijing is a city of contrasts: It has dazzling Olympic venues as well as the ancient city, a maze of homes and alleys, called hutongs, that are rapidly being demolished to make way for high-rise development.

Michael Meyer, 36, is a former Peace Corps volunteer. He lived in Beijing for years, but says he felt detached from the city. He then moved to a hutong and finagled a job as a teacher in a local, hutong school.

Out of that experience came his book, The Last Days of Old Beijing.

Brothers' Lives Reflect China's Growing Income Gap

This is the first in a two-part series.

Gong Wencong i i

Gong Wencong is the middle of three brothers whose lives reflect the rapid change in China's economy. At top, he surveys the demolition of his Beijing neighborhood in 2002. At bottom, he stands in his current home, a well-appointed apartment in Beijing's far suburbs. Frank Langfitt, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Frank Langfitt, NPR
Gong Wencong

Gong Wencong is the middle of three brothers whose lives reflect the rapid change in China's economy. At top, he surveys the demolition of his Beijing neighborhood in 2002. He stands in front of the house where he spent most of his life. At bottom, he stands in his current home, a well-appointed apartment in Beijing's far suburbs. He prefers his apartment to the cramped conditions of his old family home.

Frank Langfitt, NPR
Gong Wenju i i

Gong Wenju, the youngest of the three Gong brothers, lived with his wife's relatives after the family home was knocked down in 2002 (top). He now lives in a small brick house on the edge of Beijing. He keeps a pigeon coop on the roof — just as he did in the old family home (bottom). Frank Langfitt, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Frank Langfitt, NPR
Gong Wenju

Gong Wenju, the youngest of the three Gong brothers, lived with his wife's relatives after the family home was knocked down in 2002 (top). He now lives in a small brick house on the edge of Beijing. He keeps a pigeon coop on the roof — just as he did in the old family home (bottom).

Frank Langfitt, NPR

Three decades ago, most people in China were poor, but their living standards were largely equal. Since then, market reforms have turned China into a nation of winners and losers, with an income gap that is now nearly as wide as America's.

It's a gap that plays out in individual families across the country, such as the Gong brothers of Beijing.

I first met the Gongs six years ago, when I was working as a reporter in China. As part of a huge redevelopment project, the government was preparing to knock down their family home in the city's old alleys.

The three brothers had spent decades under the same roof and had fairly similar lifestyles. But after their home was demolished, they split up and landed on different rungs of China's economic ladder.

Earlier this year, I returned to Beijing to see what had become of them and their relationships.

'I Drive A BMW'

Wencong — the middle brother and the most successful one — now lives in a handsome, two-bedroom apartment in the suburbs. It looks nothing like the cramped house he shared with his brothers.

It's filled with gleaming Ming and Qing Dynasty-style furniture and a giant-screen TV.

Wencong, 57, had just returned from his first trip abroad, to South Korea. And he had bought a new car — a BMW worth $47,000 (U.S.).

It's no surprise Wencong has done well. He was the most outgoing of the three brothers. And he adapted faster to the shift from a Communist system to one where people profit from their work.

Some people are nostalgic for the egalitarian ways of Beijing's old alleys, but Wencong mostly complains about how inconvenient they were. Back then, he had to walk down the street to use a public bathroom.

Before work, "there was always a line," he recalls.

Now, he has a private bathroom, with heat.

Driven by Hardship

Wencong says he lives better because he was driven to. During the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, the government forced him and millions of others to work in the countryside. Describing a decade of hard labor, his eyes glisten with anger.

"When I was sent down to the countryside, I did all sorts of hard work," he says, spitting out the words. "The dirtiest work, the most tiring work: scooping up dung."

He returned to Beijing in the 1970s, eager to improve his lot.

As China began to move toward a market economy, Wencong found a niche: selling vegetables wholesale to private vendors. The new system rewarded initiative. He earned bonuses and put in 14-hour days.

"Anything is better than plowing a field," he says. "So any job I could get, I worked hard."

A long time ago, when I first met Wencong, he told me another way wholesalers made money: Corrupt ones could falsify invoices and pocket the proceeds.

Now retired, Wencong lives on a government pension of just $180 a month. When I ask how he could afford such a nice car, he becomes defensive and angry.

"I drive a BMW. Is there a problem?" he asks.

Many Chinese suspect the country's nouveau riche of corruption. I tell him I'm implying nothing and he insists he has done nothing wrong.

No Money, No 'Brains' To Play The Market

Before the family home was demolished six years ago, Wencong's younger brother, Wenju, moved out as well. Today, he is retired, living in a tiny house on the edge of Beijing.

His lifestyle is very different from his wealthier brother's. Instead of a BMW, Wenju gets around by bike. He heats his home with a coal stove. A blanket hangs in front of the door to keep the cold out.

Wenju, now 49, used to work in a state-owned wool factory. But when China's economy turned fiercely competitive in the 1990s, the factory went bankrupt.

One reason his wealthier brother has done better is because he has more of a head for capitalism, says Wenju, the youngest of the three Gong brothers. He thinks his brother made much of his money playing China's rollicking stock market, which has attracted a huge number of small investors.

Wenju, though, doesn't own any stocks.

"I don't have the brains to play the stock market," he says. "And I don't have the money."

After Wenju's factory collapsed, he took up cab driving, but his income kept falling.

"In 2002, you could make a little money," he says. "Gas was cheaper, more people took taxis."

But now, he says, more people have bought their own cars — such as Wenju's brother and his BMW.

In fact, China's rapid growth has actually hurt cabbies by putting more private cars on the road and pushing up gas prices.

Estrangement Between Brothers

When they lived together, Wenju and Wencong saw each other every day. Now, it's just a few times a year. Plus, they don't seem as close.

Chinese New Year is the most important holiday on the calendar — akin to Thanksgiving, when families usually get together.

But Wenju says he will celebrate at home — not with his brother and his big screen TV and new luxury sedan.

"It's not very convenient," Wenju says. "This year, it's impossible. I don't have a car."

Wednesday's story explains what happened to the third Gong brother, Wenbiao. Of the three, he fared the worst.

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