Wandering around parts of old Beijing it appears as if life
continues on as it has for many years before. Cyclists make their rounds,
children play and vendors set up shop as another day begins in the vast
networks of alleyways and courtyards referred to as the “Hutongs” of Beijing.
Lined with people’s homes, shops, markets and services, the
Hutongs have long been the veins of Beijing — possibly dating back even
earlier than 1215 when Genghis Khan and his Mongol army demolished the area
known as present day Beijing.
Making up social networks and forming vibrant communities
that have evolved over generations, the Hutongs not only house millions of
Beijing residents but also form micro economies that provide many with their
livelihoods. They are clearly a huge part of China’s cultural heritage as well
as a way of life for the many residents that still continue to call them home.
For visiting foreigners, it is scenes like these —
tucked away amongst cobblestone lanes lined with brick homes — that many
yearn for and have traveled from far afield to experience. Cruising around on a
rented bike or choosing to explore at the pace of your own two feet, this slice
of Beijing life is taken in utilizing all five senses. Second only to the
Forbidden City, these animated scenes of daily life continue to be a top draw
for tourists visiting China’s capital, a city home to over 15 million residents.
Pedaling around aimlessly for hours at a time amongst
Beijing’s famous and lesser known Hutongs was definitely one of my most
memorable experiences in China. Little alleyways and courtyards seemed to snake
on forever, accommodating animated residents all going about their daily lives.
Smells both good and bad pervaded the streets and the silence almost seemed
surreal compared to the madness of the modern boulevards and highways mere
blocks away, where rickshaws and bicycles attempt to flow in harmony amongst
the chaos of the ever increasing numbers of cars and motorbikes tooting their
horns in a deafening standstill.
Recognizing the Hutongs historical place in China, the
Beijing government has looked to the future and designated some districts as
protected to preserve cultural heritage. With the Olympic Games just around the
corner, however, this way of life for many of Beijing’s residents has already
come to an end. Except for those areas designated as protected, many of the
remaining Hutong neighborhoods have been living on borrowed time.
In recent years an alarming number of these cultural marvels
have been disappearing at a ferocious rate. Throughout the city are piles of
rubble reminiscent of war zones that once housed generations of families and local
business. Headlines have put the rate of evictions at 13,000 residents per
Some were cleared way for new Olympic venues, while the
majority of Hutongs are destroyed by government plan to modernize and beautify
the city in time for the Games by constructing row upon row of gleaming, cookie
cutter apartment complexes, shopping centres, office buildings and sports
Urban development in Beijing leading up to the Olympics is
proceeding at such an unprecedented scale it is said that in the last year
alone the construction in Beijing is roughly equal to all of the construction
in continental Western Europe over the last three years. Millions of square
meters of soil have been relocated to get Beijing ready for its elaborate
coming out party at the Olympic Games in August, showing the world how far
China has come and staking out China’s place as a 21
There is no doubt that a good portion of Beijing was in need
of some long awaited maintenance and upgrades. Over the years some areas have
been neglected more than others and several Hutongs have slipped with
substandard living conditions and dilapidated and haphazardly built structures
creating a significant fire hazards. The majority of Hutongs are heated by
burning coal, adding to Beijing’s unprecedented and appalling air quality.
Also surprising to many visitors, Hutongs often feature
communal squat toilets shared by an entire street’s residents that are neither
heated nor air conditioned, and many are known for inadequate plumbing. Some
even speculate that large sections of the city could have easily turned the
2003 SARS scare into a rampant epidemic.
mean better lives” is the official slogan and by the time the summer Olympics
begin estimates put the number of displaced or evicted residents as high as a
staggering 1.5 million people, according to the Geneva-based Center on Housing
Rights and Evictions. They claim that the evictions began a mere two days after
Beijing was awarded the Olympics.
Residents are often given insufficient notice as to when
their home will be destroyed and some are forcefully evicted. Many have no
choice but to move to the outskirts of the city, often 25 to 60 km from their
previous home. Residents also complain that there are few avenues to dispute
government compensation rates which often are not enough to allow them to
relocate to a dwelling of similar size in the same area.
While the local government promotes its plan as a betterment
to the city, many displaced residents claim gross human rights abuses and
widespread corruption. There are even reports of thugs being hired by
developers to expedite the removal of residents whose homes are on the chopping
block, using heavy-handed tactics and even actual violence as a means of removal.
People have been threatened with loss of employment if they
don’t go quietly and there is even footage of homes being demolished while
residents are still inside. Many Beijingers feel that local government
officials are in bed with the many developers who have eagerly capitalized on
the push to host the world at the Summer Games.
This period of adjustment will no doubt send ripples through
Chinese society. It will be felt for several years, and will have a huge impact
on the social fabric of a city that has grown and evolved for generations.
It will also have a profound affect on the micro-economics
of several communities. Not only have many lost their homes but many are also
losing the small business that generated their livelihood. No matter how modern
their new residences may be, many will no doubt have extreme difficulty
transitioning into the workforce after having run the family business for
Hutong protests are often met with crackdowns and arrests as
China seeks to avoid any embarrassment or international spotlight mere months
before the games. The Chinese government had previously denounced forced
evictions after a successive rash of protests in September of 2003 during which
a protestor even took his own life by lighting himself on fire.
As a condition of accepting the 2008 summer games, China was
expected to improve its human rights record and already many eyes watching the
nation are taking note and adding this forced gentrification to an already
lengthy list of human rights charges. Many feel that in the race to modernize
the world’s most populous country the rights of many continue to be blatantly
neglected or ignored.
Amidst the growing controversy, even as Chinese officials
continue to claim that they are doing everything to balance the best interests
of the city on the road to the 2008 Olympics, one thing is certain — the
face of Beijing and the life of its citizens will never be the same.
For better or for worse, hosting the Games means an end of
an era for many of Beijing’s residents as well as the beginning of a new
unwritten chapter in China’s long and animated history.
Back in Vancouver the road to the 2010 Winter Games is not
immune to pockets of controversy as evictions of a much smaller scale are
disputed and protested by the cities East-end residents. While not homeowners
themselves, the long term tenants of low-cost hotels have complained that rooms
are becoming sparse and many have been forced to the streets as rooms are
refurbished or destroyed to accommodate tourists or new luxury condo buildings
— something developers claim would have happened anyway, given
Vancouver’s booming real estate market and the physical limitations on
development in the city.
Unfortunately, poorly organized protests overshadowed with
ludicrous and baseless rhetoric by groups such as the Anti-Poverty Committee
may have succeeded in losing public sympathy for the East-end residents’ cause.
Where the Hutongs go, so do Vancouver’s poorest residents.