Can Bei­jing’s tra­di­tional hu­tong neigh­bour­hoods with­stand the crush of progress, won­ders Eithne Nightin­gale

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - China Holidays -

TWO tri­cy­cles approach each other along the al­ley, nei­ther giv­ing way. One car­ries a mound of flat­tened card­board, the other a cart­load of coal. At the last minute the re­cy­cler rings her bell and swerves just in time to avoid a col­li­sion. The coal­man, in his Mao-style padded jacket, spits and parks his tri­cy­cle cum cart out­side a court­yard house.

I am in Bei­jing search­ing out what is left of the hu­tongs, the nar­row streets that criss-cross the wider north-south roads of the cap­i­tal. They have been a fea­ture of city life since the Yuan Mon­gol dy­nasty (1279-1368). For many cen­turies and un­til quite re­cently the hu­tong and the si­heyuan , the dis­tinc­tive court­yard houses that line the nar­row al­leys, have been the root and branch of so­cial life in Bei­jing.

The coal­man takes his de­liv­ery up the steps of the one-storey build­ing guarded by stone li­ons and pushes open the ma­hogany red door. It is framed by grey walls and crowned with a geo­met­ric red, green and blue wood­work carv­ing. The eaves, tucked un­der two lay­ers of grey tiles, jut out over the door. The roofs dip and soar against the blue win­ter sky, echo­ing the flam­boy­ant curves of the im­pe­rial palace of the nearby For­bid­den City.

Just inside the en­trance, an elab­o­rate carved stone frieze pro­tects the in­hab­i­tants against evil spir­its and pry­ing eyes. As the coal­man opens the door wide, light spills on to a court­yard be­yond. Two chil­dren kick a shut­tle­cock. A bird in a gilded cage keeps an old man com­pany as he and his friends play mahjong un­der the fig tree.

The cen­tral court­yard, sur­rounded by rooms on four sides, over­spills with plants, cook­ing uten­sils and sacks of veg­eta­bles. The lay­out and the coloured wooden friezes re­flect that of many Bud­dhist tem­ples. The or­nate dec­o­ra­tion, the height of the steps and the li­ons guard­ing the door de­note that this court­yard house be­longs, or has be­longed, to a rich per­son of some pres­tige.

The coal­man con­tin­ues along the street, open­ing doors to re­veal less spa­cious ar­eas. Zuo Shu Xian, who lives alone, shares the small court­yard with two other fam­i­lies. Zuo Shu is keen to stay in the area where she has lived for 50 years. It is quiet and peace­ful. The high roofs and thick walls mean that the house is cool in sum­mer and warm in win­ter.

I en­joy the com­mu­nity in the hu­tong,’’ Zuo Shu says. I can play mahjong with my friends and neigh­bours at any time and I am never alone.’’

She pays a nom­i­nal rent and can pass the house on to her chil­dren, but it is un­likely they will take up the of­fer even though other rents can be con­sid­er­ably higher. Her mar­ried chil­dren pre­fer the crea­ture com­forts of the mod­ern apart­ment blocks fur­ther out of the city. Be­sides, the streets are too nar­row for their newly ac­quired cars.

Zuo Shu de­nies that over­crowd­ing is a prob­lem. She ad­mits there are some­times con­flicts when fam­i­lies share wa­ter and elec­tric­ity and cook in the court­yard at the same time. It is not un­com­mon for fights to break out be­tween chil­dren. But the neigh­bour­hood com­mit­tee is al­ways on hand to re­solve dis­putes, to root out any sus­pi­cious be­hav­iour or even to en­sure ad­her­ence to the one-child pol­icy.

Not all court­yard houses have re­tained their orig­i­nal func­tion. What was once the house of a high-rank­ing im­pe­rial of­fi­cial is now a day nurs­ery. It is an im­pres­sive build­ing with an outer court­yard orig­i­nally used to re­ceive guests or to stage an opera per­for­mance and an in­ner court­yard for fam­ily and ser­vants. Now the house has been trans­formed by Chi­nese folk mu­rals, climb­ing frames and cir­cles on the court­yard floor to mark where chil­dren stand in line for early morn­ing ex­er­cises. Even the three-year-olds are able to demon­strate im­pres­sive kung fu skills.

The street names re­veal much of the his­tory of each area. Li­ulichang hu­tong, now fa­mous for its book­shops and an­tiques, was so called be­cause of the pres­ence of a gov­ern­ment glazed-tile fac­tory dur­ing the Yuan era. Some names, such as Dachaye hu­tong (Great Tealeaf Al­ley), in­di­cate the mer­chan­dise that is, or has been, on sale in the street.

Dur­ing the Ming pe­riod there were 1200 streets of which 459 were hu­tongs. By the Qing pe­riod the num­ber had in­creased to more than 2000 and, when in 1949 Mao pro­claimed the for­ma­tion of the Peo­ple’s Repub­lic of China, there were about 3000 hu­tongs. A sig­nif­i­cant in­crease in the Bei­jing pop­u­la­tion be­tween 1949 and 1959 com­pelled the newly formed com­mu­nist regime to have dif­fer­ent fam­i­lies share the same court­yard and dif­fer­ent gen­er­a­tions of the same fam­ily share the units within. More re­cently, how­ever, the hu­tongs have been un­der threat. De­mo­li­tion started in earnest in the 1980s and ev­ery year since the late 90s new de­vel­op­ments such as roads, high-rise res­i­dences and com­mer­cial dis­tricts have de­stroyed whole ar­eas. The word chai painted on walls or doors — in­di­cat­ing that the build­ing is to be de­mol­ished — has be­come a reg­u­lar fea­ture of the hu­tong land­scape.

Ian John­son, for­mer Wall Street Jour­nal correspondent in Bei­jing, re­ported that in the 90s more than 200,000 peo­ple lost their homes in the old city and re­ceived prac­ti­cally no com­pen­sa­tion. Many were el­derly, cut off from their so­cial sup­port sys­tems and un­able to travel back to their pre­vi­ous em­ploy­ment.

Prepa­ra­tion for the Olympics has ex­ac­er­bated the sit­u­a­tion. Roads have had to be built to ac­com­mo­date more traf­fic; in­vest­ment in the in­fra­struc­ture of the city and the boom of the real-es­tate in­dus­try is in part be­cause of the Games.

There has been some or­gan­ised op­po­si­tion. From 1998 the Bei­jing Cul­tural Her­itage Pro­tec­tion Cen­tre, which be­came a non­govern­ment or­gan­i­sa­tion in 2003, set up tele­phone hot­lines and de­vel­oped a web­site to sup­port the cam­paign against de­struc­tion of the hu­tongs. In 2000, Fang Ke, a stu­dent of a re­spected pro­fes­sor of ar­chi­tec­ture, pub­lished a book on the sub­ject. In 2003, Chengji (Record of a City) by jour­nal­ist Wang Jun be­came an in­stant best­seller.

In 2002, the Gov­ern­ment re­sponded by iden­ti­fy­ing 25 his­toric ar­eas to be con­served. The se­lec­tion was based on the state of re­pair and the ar­chi­tec­tural and his­tor­i­cal value. Within the sec­ond ring road, the height of build­ings was reg­u­lated, roofs were to be slanted at the cor­rect an­gle and those that did not con­form were to be de­mol­ished. The re­vival of tem­ples, folk cus­toms and tra­di­tional en­ter­tain­ment was also en­cour­aged.

In some ar­eas this has led to in­creased com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion. Bars and restau­rants line the banks of Houhai (Back Lake) and rick­shaw driv­ers point to A3 lam­i­nated cards invit­ing you to visit the Bell Tower, the Drum Tower or eat noo­dles with a lo­cal fam­ily. In the sum­mer, women dressed in qi­pao (high­col­lared one-piece Manchu-style gown) play the pipa on tra­di­tional boats, ser­e­nad­ing lovers. Some new de­vel­op­ments, such as the Ju’er hu­tong project, have at­tempted to pre­serve the char­ac­ter of court­yard hous­ing. The de­vel­op­ment fea­tures two-storey apart­ments, ho­tels, shops and restau­rants. But the tra­di­tional res­i­dents have been pushed out of the area and re­placed by young pro­fes­sion­als.

Not all ar­eas have been de­stroyed or gen­tri­fied. There are still hu­tongs within the old city where trav­el­ling bak­ers keep bread warm in oil-can fur­naces, where noodlepullers op­er­ate out of steam-filled restau­rants and where the coal­man con­tin­ues to de­liver to rich and poor alike. But how far the hu­tong as rep­re­sen­ta­tive of a com­mu­nal way of life will ex­ist be­yond the Olympics is not clear.

All that may re­main is a mu­seum shel­ter­ing un­com­fort­ably un­der the shadow of the Olympic bub­blewrap swim­ming pool and the steel-framed bird’s nest sta­dium de­signed by lead­ing in­ter­na­tional ar­chi­tects.

I take my last glimpse as the coal­man car­ries his fi­nal de­liv­ery into the court­yard be­yond, laid out ac­cord­ing to feng shui prin­ci­ples. A large pomegranate tree holds a gilded bird­cage and shel­ters fish in the pond be­low. I am told there should al­ways be one blos­som­ing plant in the court­yard to re­mind the in­hab­i­tants of the Bud­dhist em­pha­sis on im­per­ma­nence. It seems that the hu­tongs, de­spite their court­yard houses with solid grey walls, dou­ble-tiled roofs, li­ons at the door and wall friezes to pro­tect against evil spir­its, will not be able to stave off the threat to their his­toric and com­mu­nal way of life. They too are im­per­ma­nent.


Ex­plore Hol­i­days has a five-hour tour that vis­its one of Bei­jing’s hu­tong ar­eas. It also in­cludes a lo­cal mar­ket and kinder­garten and a visit to the Lama Tem­ple, home to a 20m-high Maitreya Bud­dhist statue; from $68 a per­son. More: www.ex­plore­hol­i­

Pic­tures: Eithne Nightin­gale

Lane way: A cen­turies-old way of life in the crowded hu­tongs of old Bei­jing, with their court­yard houses and street ven­dors, is fast dis­ap­pear­ing

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