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Blogging Beijing

The 2008 Summer Olympics will punctuate three decades of development and test China's global legitimacy. They've already transformed the way millions of people think and live. Seattleite and Fulbright researcher Daniel Beekman brings you Beijing.

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December 28, 2007 3:00 PM

Heart of the city - part one

Posted by Daniel Beekman

Beijing's 2008 Summer Olympics will herald the emergence of a new, modern China.

But here in the capital, the Games will also symbolize China's recovery from a century defined by suffering, chaos and war. Chinese civilization has survived, and thanks to Beijing's Olympic organizers, the world won't soon forget it.

Where do the city's crumbling, residential alleys - its traditional hutongs - fit in? They represent China's past and, months away from the Games, their fate still isn't clear.

Most hutong homes are cramped and old. Few enjoy central heating or running water. But they're clustered around downtown Beijing - where construction firms dance to the tune 'location, location, location.' Paid off by developers, many Beijingers have willingly bolted their hutong houses for modern flats in the suburbs.

Hutongs are part of Beijing's cultural heritage. Like the Forbidden City and the Great Bell Temple, these Qing dynasty blocks memorialize Asia's most storied capital. The Qing were Manchurians, who swept down from the north to capture Beijing in 1644.

(Note: Some hutongs pre-date the Qing. Hutong apparently comes from the Mongolian hottog, meaning 'water well.' Mongolians ruled China during the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368).)

It's hard for some 'hutongers' to imagine living anywhere else. They stroll arm in arm just before dusk, smiling to old friends and waving hello. The hutongs' narrow brick walls shelter a rare sense of community.

Hutong homes scheduled for demolition are marked with the character 'chai' - which means 'to dismantle.' Residents leave. Bulldozers move in. Neighborhoods disappear overnight.

Consequently, Beijing looks less (architecturally) 'Chinese' each day. Where graceful roofs once curved towards heaven, concrete storefronts cast blocky shadows.

According to the Communist Party, all land is state land. But legislators here, citing China's rapid economic development, have passed laws designed to protect private property (the first of their kind). Adopted in March, the measures may benefit opportunistic officials and dishonest developers as much as they aid poor homeowners and farmers. Legally, however, they've nudged Beijing towards a market economy.

No private firm, Beijingers have told me, may kick a 'hutonger' off his or her property. Stubborn Chinese who stand up to developers are called 'hard as nails' - dingzi hu.

From the municipality of Chongqing - perhaps China's most intrepid dingzi hu. According to a Chongqing native I know, this home's owner hauled his meals up in a bucket and waved a Chinese flag out his window to fend off demolition teams.

But public firms - those carrying Olympic development contracts, for example - may force 'hutongers' to move. In 2002, workers were leveling 600 hutongs per year. More than 62 square kilometers in central Beijing have been cleared since 2004, according to UNESCO. And Switzerland's Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions has suggested that, by August 2008, 1.5 million people will have been displaced. Beijing's vice-mayor Liu Zhihua, who once oversaw Games-related urban planning, was dismissed for corruption in 2006.

(Note: Estimates differ with respect to Beijing's total hutongs, According to a 2006 NPR special, there were 3,000 hutongs standing 50 years ago - and only 1,000 today. Another report suggests that 1,330 hutongs existed in 1949. However, a Chinese source claims the city still contains 4,500 or more. These discrepancies are complicated by the absence of any official criteria. Some hutongs are ten meters wide. Others span less than a meter, wall-to-wall.)

On the one hand, Beijing's Olympic preparations have accelerated the hutongs' demise. Ordered to 'clean up' the city before 2008, Beijing's leaders have forced forward a modernization program based on construction. The capital's most decrepit hutongs, branded unsound and 'backward,' were always destined to go.

Yet the Olympics have also revived interest in Beijing's traditional culture.

"The Games are an opportunity to teach China's history," I've been told here time and again.

Few cities boast such a colorful past - next August will likely resemble a glorified tour. Half a million foreign tourists are expected to attend the Olympics.

Local leaders have promised to host an event both 'world-class' and 'uniquely Chinese.' To that end, they've ordered a number of hutong districts preserved. In some cases, 'preserved' has meant 'left as is.' In other cases, it's meant 'razed and rebuilt to international regulations.'

So where do the crumbling, residential alleys fit in? Squeezed tight between China's glossy future, tumultuous past and Olympic present, it seems.

Check out 'Heart of the city - part two' - coming soon - for a look at three hutong neighborhoods.

Hutong newslinks:

"Top legislature adopts landmark property law" (Xinhua)

"China looks to protect private property" (Wash. Post)

"Back-alley blues" (TIMEAsia)

"Here today, hutong tomorrow" (London Telegraph)

"'Warriors' protect hutong with cameras" (China Daily)

"Thousand cities, one face" (BeijingNewsSpeak)

"New construction crowding out Beijing's hutongs" (NPR)

'Hutong Chronicles: Danwei TV Hard Hat Show':

Interactive map of Beijing - follow up on posts and get oriented (please allow time for map's features to load):

View Larger Map


"Double challenge to Beijing orthodoxy"

"First public hearing over environment"

"Beijing 2008 ticket sales to close on Sunday"

"Beijing air pollution 'as bad as it can get'"

"A humble home for humble workers"

"Beijing rolls out carpet to disabled visitors"

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