Open­ing the gates to the cap­i­tal’s tra­di­tional neigh­bor­hoods

China Daily (USA) - - CHINA - By CUI JIA and TANG YUE Con­tact the writer at cui­jia@ chi­

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.

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