Em­brac­ing

Bei­jing’s an­cient al­ley­ways are re­fur­bished and cel­e­brated

China Daily (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - Con­tact the writer at tangyue@chi­nadaily.com.cn

For cen­turies, they pro­vided homes for most of Bei­jing’s res­i­dents, but for decades the cap­i­tal’s hu­tong, the maze of nar­row, in­ter­con­nected al­leys that criss­crossed the city were deemed out­dated and shabby, so they were torn down to make way for highly prof­itable real es­tate de­vel­op­ment.

In 1949, the year New China was founded, there were 3,073 hu­tong (the name is both plu­ral and sin­gu­lar), but by 2005, the num­ber had fallen by al­most one-third to 1,353.

Now, although some are still be­ing de­mol­ished— al­beit at a much slower rate than be­fore — the hu­tong are be­com­ing in­creas­ingly rec­og­nized as cul­tural icons ripe for mon­e­ti­za­tion.

In ad­di­tion to the For­bid­den City — the for­mer res­i­dence of China’s em­per­ors — the col­lec­tion of closely packed groundlevel homes ar­ranged in dis­tinc­tive pat­terns, is now on the must-do lists of most vis­i­tors from home and abroad.

Some have be­come so pop­u­lar with tourists that the res­i­dents find the at­ten­tion over­whelm­ing, and preser­va­tion­ists are con­cerned about the po­ten­tial risk the crowds of vis­i­tors pose to the his­toric build­ings.

The in­flux was so bad at Nan­lu­ogux­i­ang in the Dongcheng dis­trict, that in April the lo­cal gov­ern­ment is­sued a ban on large tour groups en­ter­ing the a 740-year-old hu­tong.

Dur­ing a 2014 visit, Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping said the al­leys’ rich his­tor­i­cal and cul­tural legacy is the city’s “golden name card” and urged a bal­ance be­tween preser­va­tion and de­vel­op­ment.

Now, the chal­lenge for the lo­cal gov­ern­ment, de­vel­op­ers, ur­ban plan­ners and res­i­dents is to tell the story of these an­cient al­leys in a cul­tur­ally and com­mer­cially sus­tain­able way, in­stead of sim­ply turn­ing the “golden name card” into a gold mine.

Pa­tience, in­clu­siv­ity

Although Yang­meizhu Street is not the most pop­u­lar hu­tong with tourists, it has been lead­ing the way; not by speed, but by plac­ing pa­tience and in­clu­siv­ity at the cen­ter of the process, fac­tors not al­ways seen in a fast-chang­ing so­ci­ety.

Orig­i­nally called Yang­mei Street, and named after a fe­male match­maker, it was re­named Yang­meizhu Street— “the street of poplars, plums and bam­boo” — early last cen­tury.

De­spite its name, the 600year-old hu­tong, lo­cated in the cen­ter of Bei­jing, about 500 me­ters south­west of Tian’an­men Square, has never been a botan­i­cal gar­den.

In­stead, the 496-me­ter-long al­ley was once the home of Qingyunge, the city’s most­pop­u­lar shop­ping mall, and was the first place bil­liards was played in China. It has also been the home of many cul­tural fig­ures, in­clud­ing the writer Shen Cong­wen (1902-88).

“You could meet a lot of fa­mous men on the street back then. Sit down with any of the old peo­ple on the street and you will hear a lot of in­ter­est­ing sto­ries that you can’t read in any book,” said Wang Xi­uren, 63, a 21st-gen­er­a­tion mem­ber of a fam­ily that has lived in Yang­meizhu for more than four cen­turies.

Un­til 1956, the Wang fam­ily ran a busi­ness that sold dog skin plas­ters, used to treat rheuma­tism, strains, cuts and bruises. The fam­ily’s two yards were oc­cu­pied by new­com­ers dur­ing the pe­riod of na­tion­al­iza­tion, and later the “cul­tural revo­lu­tion” (1966-76). Not all of the prop­erty has been re­turned to the fam­ily yet.

In 1996, Wang, a for­mer li­brar­ian, opened a book­shop in a house in the street, but busi­ness was poor be­cause the old al­ley was los­ing its “old­time” glam­our.

Large-scale de­mo­li­tion and in­au­then­tic his­toric rep­re­sen­ta­tions are mis­takes that we have tried not to re­peat.

Jia Rong, vice-gen­eral man­ager of Dashilan-Li­ulichang Cul­tural De­vel­op­ment Ltd, which works along­side the lo­cal gov­ern­ment

An­cient and modern

Wang first no­ticed the changes in the al­ley in 2011, when Bei­jing De­sign Week was in­tro­duced as part of the “Dashilan Or­ganic Re­newal Plan”, which in­cludes Yang­meizhu.

Un­like Nan­lu­ogux­i­ang, which is full of restau­rants and sou­venir shops, on Yang­meizhu, a book­shop stands next to an art gallery, while an in­de­pen­dent de­sign stu­dio is the neigh­bor of a gui­tar store.

“On one hand, it seems to have re­gained its for­mer glory with some modern el­e­ments. On the other, as a lo­cal res­i­dent, I’mso happy it’s not turn­ing into an­other Nan­lu­ogux­i­ang, which is so crowded and noisy,” said Wang, who vol­un­teers to re­late the street’s his­tory when­ever events are held there.

Yang­meizhu is a huge con­trast to the Qian­men area, just a block away. It was once Bei­jing’s busiest com­mer­cial area, but was torn down and re­built with an­cient-style es­tab­lish­ments. It re­opened on the eve of the open­ing cer­e­mony of the 2008 Bei­jing Olympics, and is now home to both tra­di­tional Chi­nese stores and in­ter­na­tional fash­ion brands.

“Large-scale de­mo­li­tion and in­au­then­tic his­toric rep­re­sen­ta­tions are mis­takes that we have tried not to re­peat,” said Jia Rong, head of the re­newal plan and vice-gen­eral man­ager of Dashilan-Li­ulichang Cul­tural De­vel­op­ment Ltd, which works along­side the lo­cal gov­ern­ment.

“Legally, it is not per­mit­ted to de­mol­ish build­ings in the his­toric preser­va­tion zone and force the res­i­dents to move­out. Fi­nan­cially, it would also be im­pos­si­ble to re­lo­cate so many res­i­dents si­mul­ta­ne­ously.”

In­stead, the com­pany of­fers com­pen­sa­tion or a hous­ing ex­change, which res­i­dents can ac­cept any time they want.

So far, more than 600 house­holds of the 1,700 res­i­dents have opted to leave, while the oth­ers, in­clud­ing Wang’s fam­ily, have cho­sen to stay, Jia said.

The com­pany rents some of the build­ings to busi­nesses whose con­cepts are com­pat­i­ble with the neigh­bor­hood, of­fer­ing good deals to those likely to en­hance the area’s cul­tural ap­peal or en­rich di­ver­sity but which­may not be very prof­itable.

Three years ago, Li Kuo, from Tai­wan, opened a de­sign stu­dio on the street. He com­pared the ren­o­va­tions with those on his home is­land.

“The up­grad­ing of the old neigh­bor­hoods in Tai­wan has a longer his­tory, and from what I’ve seen, it can’t be achieved in a very speedy fash­ion,” he said. “It’s re­ally a great comfort to see that there are spa­ces avail­able for less-prof­itable busi­nesses in such an ex­pen­sive area in fast-chang­ing Bei­jing.”

The prob­lem is that some of the yards are half-empty or have few res­i­dents, so Jia and her col­leagues have in­vited ar­chi­tects to re­design the yards and trans­form the empty houses into public spa­ces.

“In the long run, some res­i­dents will stay for good. We don’t know the num­ber yet, and we haven’t set a tar­get,” Jia said. “After five years of ex­per­i­ments, our next step will be to bet­ter in­vig­o­rate com­mu­nity life by the in­tro­duc­tion of var­i­ous es­tab­lish­ments.”

The 63-year-old Wang was happy to hear that. She or­ga­nizes mem­bers of the al­ley’s younger gen­er­a­tion, most of whom live else­where, to help with the busi­ness when they are free — not to save money, but to en­sure that the young peo­ple main­tain a con­nec­tion with their fam­ily roots.

“Ul­ti­mately, it’s not only about the place, it’s about the peo­ple who live here,” she said.

PHO­TOS BY ZOU HONG / CHINA DAILY

The re­built Shi­jia hu­tong at­tracts many tourists from around the world.

Yang­meizhu Street, one of Bei­jing’s old­est hu­tong, has be­come one of the most pop­u­lar tourist spots in the cap­i­tal.

A re­paired flo­ral-pen­dant gate in Shi­jia hu­tong.

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