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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 31, 2007 5:27 PM

Heart of the city - part two

Posted by Daniel Beekman

I recently visited three hutong districts (see 'Heart of the city - part one' for an introduction).

Just south of Tian'anmen Square, where old men fly kites and the 'great liberator' - Mao Zedong - lies embalmed, is a neighborhood known as Qianmen. Qianmen means 'Front Gate.' Originally Zhenyangmen ('Noon Gate'), the neighborhood's massive namesake was built in 1419. For centuries it served as the entrance to Beijing's imperial city.

Today, there's a McDonald's across from Qianmen (the gate) and a mall. Beyond those, Qianmen (the district) begins. One of 25 neighborhoods labeled 'historic' in 2002 at UNESCO's advice, the 1.45 square-kilometer space is criss-crossed by hutongs. Beginning in the Yuan dynasty, Qianmen housed the bulk of old Beijing's brothels, shops and theaters.

Fresh off the subway, I ducked behind McDonald's and bumped into an elderly lady. She was sweeping the steps of a sagging, wood restaurant. How long had it been there? She didn't know.

"It's coming down soon," she chuckled. "It's coming down soon."

Having been marked with the Chinese character chai, the restaurant was in for a serious makeover.

"See that peeling paint? Ugly." I was told. "Thank goodness for the Olympics. Now it's going to look beautiful."

A curious waitress joined us outside. I asked her opinion.

"I can't really say," she answered. "I just moved here last month - from Hebei (a Chinese province close to Beijing).

Nodding goodbye, I wound my way further south, deep into Qianmen. I eventually found a cluster of residential quadrangles, traditional homes known to Beijingers as Siheyuan. There weren't many people around. I latched onto an octengenarian.

"These houses will never fall," the retired doctor said confidently. "They're too famous, too old, too historic."

And the others? The hutongs now under seige, the homes already gone?

"Different." Her tone was final. "They needed to go. Those neighborhoods were always worthless."

When did she move into Qianmen?

"I was born here," she replied. "I'm Manchu. Do you know what that means?"

The rulers of China's Qing dynasty were Manchurians, who swept down from the north to capture Beijing in 1644 and weren't overthrown until 1911.

Days earlier, I'd ventured down a different sort of hutong. Located well beyond Beijing's old city walls, on the banks of a man-made canal, Wanshousi (Long Life Temple) once served as a rest stop for emperors. Bound for the Summer Palace, the emperors traveled by boat. Now Wanshousi houses an art museum.

A small hutong neighborhood, built in and around the remains of an unpreserved temple, stands between Wanshousi and a block of new flats. I pulled out my camera and ducked under an open, stone-bordered door. Unlike Qianmen, the neighborhood recieves little outside attention. A wheezy old man stopped wheezing to stare.

At first I passed pigeon coops, broken-down bicylces and half-collapsed shacks. But the further I walked, the nicer the hutong became. Hutongs aren't wide - it's nearly impossible for one car to pass another parked on the side. Yet, here were Audis and Hyundais. Hutongs are so quiet, I thought to myself - spying two woodpeckers perched high up a tree.

An elderly couple had trouble understanding my Chinese - initially, the woman frowned while the man gaped at me. They'd shared the same home for 40-plus years.

"Our house is too old," said the woman. "We're too old, too."

Stepping out of the alley, I asked a busy shopkeeper about the unpreserved temple. Annoyed, she shot me a scowl.

At last, I set out for the hutongs at Qianhai and Houhai (Front and Back Lakes), where scholars once lived and tourists now swarm. I headed for one home in particular - the former residence of 20th century author Guo Moruo. Being unfamiliar with the area, I'd decided to spring for a cab. Unfortunately, my soft-spoken driver knew Qianhai no better. We soon found ourselves lost.

Most hutongs, which twist this way and that, are maze-like by design. To make matters worse, they often dead-end. Many of Qianhai and Houhai's hutongs were being redone. We reversed back down alleys and begged locals for help. Once, caught between a wall and a manhole, we barely scraped through.

It was hard to tell which homes were truly historic and which were restored. Either way, the hutongs were charming. After saying goodbye to my cab driver, I met a lady on her way to buy fruit.

"I live in an old house by Xizhimen," she said. "But I'll have to move out very soon - in the next month or two."


"It's been marked for destruction," she said. "For the Olympics."

I asked if she would recieve compensation.

"Yes, yes," I was told - enough for a flat past the Fourth Ring Road. "But I don't want money. I want my house. Living out there just isn't convenient. Where will my grand-kids go to school? Where will I buy vegetables? I'm not used to life on the outskirts. But, I have little choice."

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


"Beijing says venues almost all ready"

"Wanted: tall thin women to present Olympic medals"

"China finds American allies for security"

"Baby boom for the Beijing Olympics"

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