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A Walk Through Beijing's Vanishing Hutongs

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A Walk Through Beijing's Vanishing Hutongs

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A Walk Through Beijing's Vanishing Hutongs

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The whole world has gotten a long televised look at the new Olympic Beijing - a city with high-concept architecture, such as the stadium called the Bird's Nest. Well, there's another Beijing, an ancient city. It's a maze of homes and alleys that are rapidly being demolished to make way for high-rise development. It's that second Beijing that we're going to visit as we finish this hour's program.

Michael Meyer spent several years living in those alleys, and he's written a book about it.

NPR's Frank Langfitt joined Meyer for a journey through the city's vanishing backstreets.

FRANK LANGFITT: It's a Saturday morning in Dazhalan, a 600-year-old neighborhood just south of Tiananmen Square. Listen closely, because these sounds are growing ever tinctured in China's capital. People ride to the outdoor market on bikes, where butchers whack hunks of pork with meat cleavers. Along the edges of the lanes, known as Hutongs in Chinese, barbers get outdoor haircuts. The price: less than 50 cents.

The neighborhood is a hive of commerce and chatter. Into the last three years, Michael Meyer has called it home.

Mr. MICHAEL MEYER (Author, "The Last Days of Old Beijing"): You could imagine, if you've been to Venice, then you can picture the canals lined with interlocking buildings; that's what Beijing's Hutong look like. These lands, they're very narrow, I can almost stretch my arms across right now and touch the walls in either side. The architecture is gray brick with tiled rooftops. It's all one-story tall.

LANGFITT: Meyer's 36. He used to be a Peace Corps volunteer. He lived in Beijing for years, but felt detached from the city.

Mr. MEYER: I woke up one morning, I just realized I may as well be living in Cleveland. I was living in a high-rise apartment in the outskirts of the city. I didn't know my neighbors. I didn't know who picked up my trash.

LANGFITT: So he finagled a job as a teacher in a local Hutong school. Out of that experience came his book, "The Last Days of Old Beijing." Meyer's students called him Teacher Plumblossom. In advance to this month's games, he taught neighbors Olympic English so they could talk to foreigners.

Mr. MEYER: (Speaking foreign language) Hello.

LITTLE LIU: Hello.

Mr. MEYER: How are you?

LITTLE LIU: Fine. Thank you.

LANGFITT: (Unintelligible) Little Liu. She's one of his star pupils and a character in his book.

Do you remember any Olympics English?

LITTLE LIU: Olympic Games, well, it (unintelligible). And I'm a Chinese. I'm very happy. I like the competition, it's very interesting.

LANGFITT: Little Liu is 12 and still lives in the area. But other characters from Meyer's book lost their homes and left. Where their houses once stood are touristy shopping streets and wide new roads. They took compensation from the government and moved to distant suburbs. Meyer says many never knew when or if their homes would be destroyed.

Mr. MEYER: Other people, like the widow, my neighbor, an elderly woman in the book, you know, it weighs on her every day. The first thing she does when she wakes up is walks out of her house and looks to see if the mark for destruction have been painted on her wall the night before. It's hard to make investments or find your future if you don't know where you'll be leaving.

LANGFITT: But that hasn't stopped some of Meyer's friends.

Unidentified Woman: (Speaking foreign language)

Mr. MEYER: This is Soldier Liu (unintelligible).

LANGFITT: Solider Liu runs a noodle shop. He's called soldier because he served in the People's Liberation Army in China's far west. This is his second restaurant - the first was demolished for a new road. He could lose this one too, but that won't drive him out of Beijing.

SOLDIER LIU: (Through Translator) I hope to gain some experience and slowly expand this restaurant. I don't want to go home.

LANGFITT: Meyer loves his neighborhood, but living here can be tough. His room is just 90 square feet. He sleeps on a thin foam mat on top of a plywood bed. He uses a public squat toilet, and he has no heat.

Mr. MEYER: I just kind of mummified myself under several sleeping bags and a hat and gloves. It's pure misery, let's not mix words.

LANGFITT: Meyer knows that Beijing's new high-rises have better amenities, but he feels the widespread destruction of old neighborhoods is erasing the connection between people and their city.

In your two years here, it's now almost three years…

Mr. MEYER: Yeah.

LANGFITT: …what did you learn that you didn't know?

Mr. MEYER: I've learned that I hope that heaven has neighbors in it, you know? I hope that if there's a heaven - that it's still with backdrops from my life and people from my life. I want the Hutong, I want the frozen, Forbidden City moat so I can go skating. And most of all, I want neighbors. I really have come to appreciate the texture of daily life.

LANGFITT: Meyer moves out of Dazhalan next month ahead of more demolition. His new Chinese home will be on his wife's family farm in Manchuria, where he'll set his next book.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Beijing.

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