In a corner of old Beijing, the government may soon be both destroying history and remaking it.
District officials want to re-create a piece of China’s glorious dynastic past by rebuilding a square near the Drum and Bell towers in 18th-century Qing dynasty fashion. To do it, they will demolish dozens of scuffed courtyard homes that preservationists say have themselves become a part of a cultural history that is fast disappearing as construction transforms the capital.
Because of relatively recent renovation, few of the homes can claim to be more than a few decades old. But they are in crooked alleyways known as “hutongs”, which formed around courtyard houses and date back centuries.
Along their lanes and within their mended walls, an old way of life is still visible – mahjong rooms, shared courtyards, clothes hanging to dry – against a more distant backdrop of skyscrapers.
The plan to redo the neighbourhood has raised the ire of those who see it as swapping a real and living piece of Beijing’s history with something static and fake.
“They want to restore the Drum and Bell Tower square to the time of the prosperous Qing dynasty,” but in doing so they will destroy a “rich accumulation of cultural heritage,” said He Shuzhong, founder of Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Centre, a nongovernmental organisation.
“We believe that protecting cultural heritage is about inheriting, accumulation. It is a process of history. It shouldn’t look like the prosperous time now,” he said.
Dominic Johnson-Hill, a British entrepreneur who spent nine years living in the Drum and Bell neighbourhood, said the hutongs “are kind of the living museums of China, or Beijing at least”.
“If you go to the Forbidden City it feels quite empty, as do a lot of cultural spots. But when you go to a hutong, you feel like you are in some of the best surviving parts of Beijing,” Johnson-Hill said.
The Drum and Bell towers were first built in 1272 to announce the time, and at various points in history, the square served as a lively marketplace. Today, it is different.
The homes are dilapidated and the hutongs lined with rubble. A handful of tourists meander through while locals carry home shopping bags, some of them stopping to read pasted signs advising which properties will be knocked down. At one home, pigeons warble in coops on the corrugated iron roof.
A previous plan in 2009 to demolish the courtyard houses and build an underground mall was shelved after opposition from civic groups and some residents. Now a less ambitious plan is on the table.
The Dongcheng district government says the new plan is about preserving history. It says it will restore the square “to its original appearance” by using maps of the Qianlong period in the Qing dynasty in the 18th century and other unspecified periods, though they are still working out designs and details are vague. Residents, however, were given notice to move in December.
The oldest houses to be demolished date from the Republic of China, 1911-1949, but most were either renovated or rebuilt after the 1970s, said Liu Jingdi, who works for the Dongcheng district Historical Appearance Protection Office.
These houses are of “no historical value. There is absolutely no cultural heritage in the 4,700-square-metre area” to be demolished, Liu said.
The neighbourhood’s average living space per household is just 20 square metres and is rife with fire hazards, officials say. Many houses are made of wood, and the 3-metre-wide hutongs are too narrow for fire trucks to navigate.
Those displaced will be relocated to bigger apartments farther from the city centre. Residents of illegally added second and third stories won’t be compensated, said Li Guanghui, deputy chief of Dongcheng housing administration.
Officials say the project will raise residents’ living standards and safeguard the area’s historical appearance. Heritage experts disagree, saying the existing homes should be renovated, not destroyed.
“We respect this place because it has so many histories, so many stories, so many imaginations,” said He, of the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Centre. “They think this is a dilapidated place, the dirtiest, messiest place of Beijing, which is hindering Beijing’s development. They think Beijing should be big, sparkling and new.”
China’s breakneck economic growth and real estate explosion over the past three decades have transformed its big cities at the expense of history. A third of Beijing’s narrow hutongs have disappeared since the early 1990s and another third have lost their original appearance after renovation, He’s group estimates.
One hutong community south of the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square was bulldozed to make way for new shops modelled on old architecture, rebuilt in 2008 with new materials rather than reusing what was there before, to the horror of heritage buffs. It is now filled with Chinese and Western brand stores.
Dongcheng officials say the Drum and Bell square won’t become a commercial street and that the surrounding area will remain residential. But those in the immediate vicinity will have to leave.
Many aren’t sorry, and are looking forward to newer and bigger houses.
“I wanted to move 30 years ago,” said one woman, who would only give her surname, Wang.
Liu Fengying, 64, is more wistful. Liu, who remembers three earlier generations of her family living in the neighbourhood, hosted visitors while wearing a winter coat and sitting on a bed that took up about half of one of her two drafty rooms. A washing line was strung across the room, and a calendar with a drawing of a young Mao Zedong hung on the wall.
“I’m not willing to leave,” she said. “But if the state needs this land, then we have no choice. They will give us a bigger house, but it’s just a little far out.”
Johnson-Hill, the British entrepreneur, said he chose to live in a hutong because he wanted to bring up his children in a community, rather than in neighbourhoods where “people live a metre apart but don’t even know each other.” His family lived in a courtyard with four Chinese families and wild ferrets in the roof.
“Those families are now like family to us. Our children would come home and would go to our neighbours’ home before they came to our home,” he said. “The best days of my life have been spent living in hutongs.”