Opening the gates to the capital’s traditional neighborhoods
On a hot summer day, a group of school children gathered for a field trip at the entrance of ShijiaHutong in Beijing’s Dongcheng district.
“This is the traditional type of neighborhood where all Beijingers once lived. It’s a lot different to the high-rise buildings you and your parents live in now,” the teacher said, as the children peeked into the alley.
Traditional neighborhoods such as Shijia are now subject to preservation orders because the Beijing government has decided to protect the old city and its unique lifestyle. During a 2014 visit to a hutong, or alleyway home, in Dongcheng, President Xi Jinping said he was familiar with the neighborhood and recalled the winter days when he would drop off his bags after school and rush to a nearby lake to ice skate.
Shijia, a 700-meter-long hutong that is marked on maps from the Yuan Dynasty (1368-1644), was once a residential area for the rich and famous. Prestigious families lived in siheyuan (traditional quadrangles), which now house ordinary families.
Zhou Hua’s family lives in the main house of No 45 Shijia, while other families occupy the wings. Like most of Beijing’s siheyuan, the original beautiful architectural features have been torn down or destroyed over the years to provide room for the construction of small kitchens or extra bedrooms.
“I never tell people I live in a siheyuan, I always like to say I live in adazayuan (a large compound),” the 61-year-old said.
Like all hutong in the Old City Preservation Zone, Shijia is facing the challenges of development and conservation. Li Xianzhong, head of the Dongcheng government, said the district plans to renovate 80 percent of the hutong in the zone by 2020.
According to Zhao Fuyan, head of Shijia neighborhood committee, the renovation process will be gradual. “The conservation of the hutong is determined by the people who live in them. We have decided to say no to new commercial development projects, such as coffee shops, to completely focus on improving the residents’ living conditions and gradually restoring the features of the hutong,” he said.
Two years ago, the residents formed Beijing’s first hutong association, with the aim of getting people involved in preserving the alley’s style and features.
“The association will raise funds for the siheyuan renovation. Unlike government-initiated programs, the residents will decide what kind of improvements they need and where the money goes,” said Zhao, who is also the association’s head.
“After they saw the photos of the newly renovated floral-pendant gate I posted on social media, many friends asked me if I’d suddenly become rich and moved into a newp lace,” she said.
Elegant gates have always served as the demarcation lines between the outer courtyard and the inner residence in Beijing siheyuan. Over the years, a lack of maintenance resulted in the deterioration of No 45’s original wooden floral-pendant gate, which was in such poor condition that the residents were concerned it was a safety hazard.
“We feared it would fall on our heads every time we walked through. Some people even said there was no point keeping it,” Zhao said.
The association decided to seek assistance from Hui Xiaoxi, a professor at Beijing University of Technology’s College of Architecture and Civil Engineering.
Hui recalled the first time he entered No 45, in February last year. “The gate’s original features were still visible, but the wood was completely rotten. I understand that when people are worried about their safety, preserving styles and features are the last things on their minds,” he said.
Hui wanted the residents to know that preserving traditional styles could help to improve their living conditions, and he proposed a plan to restore the gate while also improving the drainage system and creating gardens for the residents.
“I changed my design many times to accommodate the residents’ needs. The decision-making process may have been lengthy, but it was the only way to ensure that the design came from them and was for them,” he said.
The project was completed in July, and the residents now have an upgraded floral-pendant gate, restored to its former glory with traditional features and colors. Many of the materials used in the reconstruction were recycled from the old gate. Most important, people are now free from worries when they walk through it.
Zhou and her neighbors have been busy discussing what to plant in their new gardens, which were integral features of the original siheyuan. Now, the building is a showroom for others residents of Shijia who are looking for inspiration for their own renovation projects.
“Now I feel like a lady from a prestigious family,” Zhou said, standing under the gate and welcoming the school children into her traditional Beijing neighborhood.