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Development Threatens Traditional Way of Life in Beijing's Ancient Alleyways

  • Siska Silitonga

Beijing is rapidly undergoing a face-lift before the Olympic Games in 2008. But as new high rises are added to the skyline, some fear the more traditional aspects of life are disappearing.

On a sunny afternoon, a rickshaw passenger explores the alleyways around Beijing's Tiananmen Square. These narrow streets, or hutongs in Chinese, have been around for more than seven centuries. Here, close-knit communities live in traditional one-story courtyard homes. On this day, groups of people sit on stools on the street - playing cards or Chinese chess.

Outside one home, a visitor receives an enthusiastic welcome from an elderly woman.

"My family has lived in this house for four generations," she said. "Sometimes I have friends from overseas to visit - they like it because this is a real Chinese person's house."

But these old neighborhoods are disappearing rapidly.

City planners, architects and policy-makers are arguing over how Beijing should present itself to the world for the 2008 Summer Olympics. Some think a more modern look is needed - befitting an international metropolis. But others think Beijing should hold fast to its ancient heritage.

Although sparkling new office towers dominate the skyline, the government has been careful to preserve historical landmarks - the famed Forbidden City, the Summer Palace and the Temple of Heaven.

But increasingly, the city's hutongs are being replaced by high-rise towers and modern facilities to accommodate millions of visitors during the Beijing Olympics.

Residents of hutongs that have been destroyed are often forced to move to new buildings in distant suburbs.

The elderly lady from the courtyard home says she would not like to live in a high-rise apartment.

"There in apartments, people watch TV and do nothing else," she said. "Old people in Beijing especially do not like to live in apartments. It is not convenient for them, because they have to go up and down the stairs. At least here you can grow anything, we have birds or fish… always something to do."

Beijing once had almost 4,000 hutongs, but only about 450 remain.

But the head of Beijing's Municipal Cultural Relics Bureau, Kong Fanzhi, rejects complaints from some city residents that the government is not giving enough attention to the old districts.

Mr. Kong says Beijing's government has put a lot of effort into protecting traditional neighborhoods. He points out that some of the alleys are in bad shape and the government is planning to improve them. He also says the government will encourage tourists to visit the hutongs and experience what he calls "life in the real Beijing."

There are problems with the hutongs: most are overcrowded and the aged buildings are often in poor repair and lack modern plumbing.

Dong Shicheng grew up in a crowded hutong close to Beijing train station. He says his life now in an apartment is more comfortable.

"Our kid is bigger now, and she has her own separate space," said Dong Shicheng. "In a courtyard, such in our previous one … we had eight families living together. But we have to share one water pipe, sewage, no toilet … we have to go to the hutong's public one, which is not convenient."

Because of mounting demand, prices for modern Beijing apartments have skyrocketed. Even if they wanted to, some hutong residents could never afford to move.

This has encouraged residents and businesspeople to save money while keeping Beijing's history alive. Instead of buying expensive new apartments, some people are modernizing hutongs by adding modern bathrooms and kitchens.

Cho Chong Gee realized the potential of courtyard houses 2.5 years ago. This Malaysian businessman turns traditional Beijing homes into modern restaurants.

"I love history. I like the hutongs. I like the courtyard," he said. "The rent is cheaper here than a lot of places. I did a bit of restoration to the building, but those things that I need to add or build, I made it simple and very minimalist. The overall feeling is very relaxed."

Realizing the attraction for tourists, Beijing officials now allow residents to open bed and breakfast inns and low-cost hostels in their homes.

One, the Downtown Backpackers' Youth Hostel, has achieved international acclaim, with many foreign visitors choosing it over more modern accommodation. One of the hostel's employees, Wang Wei, explains its popularity.

"We chose a hutong because this is where you can find an authentic Beijing lifestyle," said Wang Wei. "Many foreigners really enjoy walking around the hutongs, and they can understand the real life of Beijing's ordinary people."

Historians hope this kind of entrepreneurial spirit will keep the hutongs alive, as Beijing's city planners strive to achieve a balance between the old and the new.