Destroying Beijing’s Hutongs

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Last year, Danwei TV, an internet television station that produces short videos about China, produced a series of episodes on Beijing’s famous hutongs, old neighbourhoods built around narrow laneways and courtyards. Over the past couple of decades, the number of hutongs in Beijing has dropped dramatically as they have been bulldozed for new residential and commercial developments.

Scale aside, the systematic destruction of hutongs is not much different than the urban renewal programs of postwar North America. In both cases, complex and multifaceted neighbourhoods — diverse places that evolved naturally over decades and centuries — were razed for far more homogenous, centrally-managed building complexes. When a hutong is destroyed, its residents are often relocated to far-flung housing developments on the fringes of Beijing. Their community life and social networks vanish along with their homes.

Western criticism of Beijing’s hutdong demolitions is often greeted with accusions of colonial condecension. Fair enough — North American cities are hardly good models of development. It’s refreshing, then, to hear from a Beijing person who also takes a critical view of his city’s development. In this episode of the Hutong Chronicles, Danwei TV talks to author and historian Zhang Jinqi, who wrote a book about the history of the “eight big hutongs” west of Qianmen, the former front gate of Beijing’s Imperial City.

Much of what Zhang says is relevant not only to Beijing, but to North American cities where efforts to restore, renew or gentrify old neighbourhoods leads to hollow mockeries of their past lives.

“A lot of restoration is done by completely destroying the buildings and then rebuilding them,” he says. “It makes me worried about the area. To restore something to Ming or Qing dynasty condition I think is very strange. History cannot be brought back — history develops. The houses around are 200 years old, 150, 100, also 50 years old. There are buildings from each era. There are many types of buildings side by side. So if we demolish them all, how do we restore them? If you keep tearing down the hutongs, where is old Beijing?”

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Saturday September 22 2007at 02:09 am , filed under Asia Pacific, Heritage and Preservation, Public Space and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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