Love of heritage too little, too late to save hutongs from the developers

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 June, 2007, 12:00am

As people enjoy free entry to heritage sites and museums around the nation today, the second annual Cultural Heritage Day, Xia Jie wonders if the new-found enthusiasm will save her 100-year-old courtyard house in Beijing's Dongsi Batiao, Dongsi's Eighth Alley.

On the day Ms Xia was born, her grandmother planted a guava tree in the family's courtyard at No11 Dongsi Batiao, which four generations of the family have called home since 1948. Ms Xia, now 33, grew up picking fruit in the courtyard, running up and down the hutongs, roaming in and out of neighbours' courtyards and wondering why she had to share her home with strangers, 'tenants' the family was obliged to take in during the Cultural Revolution.

When all the tenants finally moved out a few years ago, Ms Xia was thrilled that she could at last lay her hands on the whole of the 500-square-metre courtyard and transform it into a family-run hostel and art space, giving visitors a taste of authentic Beijing life and local artists a place to showcase their work.

But Ms Xia's plans for the transformation have been stalled by the rumble of bulldozers and a bureaucratic web of decisions by different layers and arms of the government covering what is officially a protected area of old Beijing. In response, she has been forced to embark on a legal journey to fight for her home.

In the past few decades, despite the government's commitment on paper to heritage conservation, two-thirds of Beijing's 3,000 hutongs - some of which have formed the capital's core since the Yuan dynasty - have been torn down as heritage protection has lost out to development. The threat to Dongsi Batiao is only the latest case.

The alley's residents first heard about demolition plans for the hutong in mid-April when the Dongcheng Housing Department put up a notice saying all odd-numbered courtyards between No1 and 23 Dongsi Batiao would be torn down for a development. They were told to move out by May 26 and the demolition permit was to remain valid until September 30, the day before the country's long-awaited Property Law takes effect.

Then, on May 14, Ms Xia found herself the unexpected centre of media attention after developers tore down No9 Dongsi Batiao. For the first time, two government-affiliated newspapers offered extensive coverage of the proposed destruction. The coverage forced the Dongcheng authorities and the developer to hold a press conference the next day to insist the demolition could take place because the heritage-listed homes were not protected.

They said the initial approval for redevelopment was obtained in 1999 on the basis that the buildings were in a dangerous state. The developer said the Dongsi Batiao section in question, which contains about 70 households and more than 100 residents, would be used to build a new office and residential complex housed in historic-style buildings, which would be much tidier than the existing ones.

As revealed by the two newspapers, a Beijing municipal government department gave the final nod for redevelopment of old and dangerous buildings in Dongsi Batiao in January. And, on the strength of this document, the Dongcheng Housing Department issued a demolition permit and the developer, the Zhongbaojiaye Properties Development Company, proceeded with demolition.

However, it was also revealed that the Beijing Heritage Bureau had opposed the demolition on the grounds that Dongsi Batiao was within a 'historical and cultural preservation area'. The Dongcheng Heritage Management Centre, on the other hand, said that there were no listed heritage sites in that specific stretch of the hutong.

Dongcheng authorities also said heritage experts, which must be consulted on any construction work in the old town, voiced no opposition to the demolition plans. But Xu Pingfang , from the Archaeological Society of China, a panel expert who has openly opposed Dongsi Batiao's redevelopment and who was not consulted on this occasion, said the decision-makers had 'mixed up the laws'.

As a first step to untying this administrative tangle and keeping her home, Ms Xia filed a request for administrative review of the Dongcheng government's March decision permitting the demolition to go ahead. The request has been accepted but it will take many more weeks until she knows what her next step in the process can be.

No further courtyard has been torn down since the sacrifice of No9. And three days after May 26, the deadline for all residents to move out, local media reported the State Administration of Cultural Heritage said there would no longer be 'extensive demolition' at Dongsi Batiao. But Ms Xia said everyone knew the administration had no decision-making power on the matter. And she and other residents had not yet received any formal notice from any government department or the developer saying that the demolition had officially stopped.

'Forced demolition is happening all around the country and it is against the law. So we are very lucky that our cause has attracted so much attention,' Ms Xia said.

The administrative logjam has ironically also proved frustrating for the developer. Bai Hua , the company's deputy general manager, said late last month that the 'situation with the government is changing every day, it's difficult to comment'.

Hua Xinmin , a 10-year veteran crusader for the protection of Beijing's hutongs, says Beijing does not lack laws to preserve the old town - the problem lies with the lack of a united vision between government departments and some officials' disrespect for the law.

'There have been many government documents over the years, but the tearing down of the hutongs has not stopped,' Ms Hua said.

As far back as 1983 a central government-approved plan stressed the importance of preserving historical buildings as well as the surrounding environment. A subsequent string of decrees has also stressed the importance of protecting the old town, meaning the area enclosed within the second ring road, where the Ming city wall used to stand.

The preservation documents for the area include the 'Plan for Beijing Old Town's 25 Historical and Cultural Preservation Areas' issued in 1999 and the State Council's Beijing Municipal Development Plan (2004-2020) released in 2005, which demands authorities preserve the whole of the old town, and 'must stop all large-scale demolition and construction'.

Two key principles underlined in the State Council document are the need to 'preserve historical authenticity' and 'protect the wholeness of traditional outlook'.

And yet the destruction continues. The Zhengjue Temple, built in the Ming dynasty (1445) and which used to sit right outside Ms Xia's courtyard, was bulldozed in 2003.

'If a temple of 500 years can be demolished, what is the heritage significance of our buildings which are only 100 years?' a devastated Ms Xia said she thought at the time. 'They first destroy the heritage, then they say there's no heritage.'

Ms Hua says the debate about what stays and goes should not be about heritage value of the individual buildings. She says Beijing's old town, with its intricate grids and flows of the Yuan capital, is a piece of artwork as a whole.

'This is not a question whether the targeted buildings have heritage value or not,' she said. 'This is about protecting Beijing's cultural environment. We are trying to protect the hutongs, not an individual house.'

However, the diversity of property ownership rights in the hutong further complicates the problem. While Ms Xia's family is owner of their courtyard, many other residents are only renting the hutongs from the government and, like Zhao Jinfu, are happy to move if the compensation is reasonable.

She lives with four other family members in a room of less than 10 square metres. Her complex now has 18 households living in add-ons to the original shared courtyard.

'This is not heritage. It's only an old and broken house,' Ms Zhao said. 'It's a pity that I have to move out after 50 years. But this house is not good, and I want to live in a better place.'


Despite the government's commitment on paper to heritage conservation, the number of Beijing's 3,000 hutongs that have been torn down is: 2,000