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From Hutong to "New-Tong"

2008/09/01 13:00:00 US/Central
text by Paul Westerberg

Hutong are found nowhere else but Beijing; they are alleyways formed by lines of traditional courtyard residences (siheyuan). A hutong used to be defined as being no wider than nine metres, but today a hutong can range from 10 metres down to 40 centimetres in width.


Finding an economically feasible method of preserving the tangible and intangible heritage of the city’s few remaining hutong is among the most complex, fascinating and frustrating challenges for any governmental or non-governmental organization in the world.

A profound ignorance at all levels of society of conservation laws and regulations with which hutong might be rescued from death or “Disney-fication” has been identified as the key culprit in extensive Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center (CHP) surveys of Beijingers.

“The most important message is that we understand that heritage preservation is still not as popular as environmental protection,” said the Center’s managing director, Matthew Hu, “but this is an equally important part of people’s lives. Public awareness of heritage preservation is simply much too low.”

The remaining scraps of an 800-year-old city reside in 33 historic areas, or about 21 percent of the old city: the area within the Second Ring Road. Yet, even within these supposedly protected areas countless “priority” and “restricted” areas can be found open to construction. And the protected areas themselves cannot be protected against new roads or other infrastructure deemed essential to the city government’s grand urban plan.

“We are making a critical or fundamental mistake by developing the city around the demands of private cars: that kind of development requires a low population density like Los Angeles,” an expert told a recent meeting of Friends of Old Beijing, a Center project. “Beijing, however, is something like New York, and we cannot resolve our transportation problems by planning for automobiles.”


Mission Not Very Possible


Preservation is difficult because each and every overcrowded hutong in these vulnerable protected areas is a microcosm, a unique combination of intangible culture—neighbourhoods, people, ways of life—and tangible culture—lanes, houses, schools, clinics, governmental offices, hotels, stores, theatres, mah-jong rooms, toilets, teahouses and temples. Beijing once had at least one temple for every hutong, according to the expert. In a book on old Beijing, he outlines how the capital city expanded slowly, organically, based on an original master plan.

Through successive dynasties, each courtyard came to be built to stringent imperial specifications to create a cell within the city, each with a small garden. For example, during summer, trees provided shade. When their leaves fell in winter, the same courtyard filled with sunshine. Elderly hutong residents, for example, can name 10 different types of gates: palace, shop, commercial, festoon, ruyimen, manzimen, chuihuamen, “golden column” and guangliangmen. Rich and poor lived alongside each other, but the emperor made sure everyone knew their rightful place in a green, breathing, people’s city.

Old Beijingers like to swap stories about Gunpowder Bureau Hutong (Huoyao Ju), Dog’s Tail Hutong (Gou Wei Ba), Nursemaids Department Hutong (Naizi Fu), Knife Sharpening Hutong (Muo Dao’r), Horse & Mule Market Hutong (Luoma Shi), Cherry Tree Hutong (Yingtao), Night Soil Field Hutong (Fen Chang), and of course, Crotch Hutong (Ku Dang).

“Every neighbourhood was designed with a function,” Hu said. “Each has so much to tell, so much to learn. With one bulldozer, you can easily demolish all of this history overnight.”


Mongol Master Plan


Emperor Kublai Khan’s very specific plan for Beijing (Dadu or Khanbalik as it was known at the time), the Mongol capital in the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368), was the first to integrate both commercial areas and residential neighbourhoods around the lakes Zhongnanhai and Beihai. These neighbourhoods cut east–west, spaced apart at a set distance. Commercial areas established on main streets went north and south of the hutong area.

As hutong was originally the Mongolian word hottog for “water well,” the folklore runs that China’s new ruling class, fearing a dearth of drinking water, had been reluctant to relocate to the dry new capital. “The idea was they would be assured there would be a hutong in every lane and thereby came the name,” guest speaker Michael Crook told a meeting of the Friends of Old Beijing.

From this auspicious beginning, the city grew to have 458 hutong by the early Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) under China’s Han majority rulers and up to 978 during the Manchu Qing Dynasty (1644–1911). The total hutong count varies depending on definition, their boundaries and the counter. But the basic modern trend remains the same: in 1944, there were 3,200 hutong. When New China was founded in 1949, there were 6,000 alleys in Beijing, 1,330 of them designated as hutong. By the 1980s, the city allegedly had more than 3,679 hutong. Since then, as many as 600 a year have been destroyed in the relentless drive to rebuild the old city, according to a 2006 Xinhua News Agency article. In early 2002, about 1,500 hutong remained. Today? Perhaps less than 1,000.

In the 2002 Beijing Olympics Action Plan, Beijing pledged to pay “special attention” to its historic areas. The Cultural Heritage Bureau spent a year investigating 132 city areas earmarked for demolition and identified a “first batch” of 539 courtyards for preservation. Another 200 single sites were added from outside the historic areas, bringing the total area of old city under protection to 38 percent.

Perhaps the first hint of what preservation might actually mean came in August 2004 when Beijing Administration of Cultural Heritage Director Mei Ninghua admitted the city faced a dilemma safeguarding the areas. Restoration of courtyard housing, he estimated, would cost about five times more than simply building a new apartment, according to an article published in the China Heritage Newsletter of Australia National University.

What followed could be considered a traditional, pragmatic approach: after all, throughout Chinese history, buildings have been demolished and rebuilt by different regimes. The modern version, as demonstrated in the Nanchizi and Qianmen areas, involves demolishing existing old buildings and erecting old-style buildings. Courtyard complexes were originally not designed to last much longer than 200 years. Thus it can be argued that a cycle of regeneration continues with these low-quality, faux courtyard houses.

“This is actually killing history,” an expert told a meeting of the Old Friends of Beijing. “This kind of large-scale protection equals construction, which equals large-scale damage.

“This kind of approach is reflected in the city planners’ ignorance of the city’s history, life and culture.”

Beijing last year spent 1 billion yuan (US$147 million) on this unique vision. A further 1.03 billion yuan (US$151 million) has been earmarked for four districts and 44 hutong in 2008. More, much more, is planned.


‘Demolition Economy’


Driving the bulldozers, according to Wang Jun in a recent article in Southern Weekend, is the “demolition economy,” whereby local governmental income is generated from demolishing old buildings and building anew. “The system offers no incentives for local governments to protect the old buildings,” Hu said.

Without any kind of real estate tax to raise revenues, local governments in China fall under constant pressure to sell land to address financial and budgeting issues. Thus local governments all over China busy themselves developing business centres, development zones and high-tech areas: selling land to generate tax revenues.

“Because of the Olympics, many things are being improved in a very hasty way,” Hu said. “Doing everything all at once is not going to generate quality.”

A far better solution, argue hutong lovers, is to abandon costly projects altogether and focus instead on a gentler, kinder approach: fixing up individual houses, detail by detail, gradually acquiring the materials and accruing the necessary rebuilding skills.

“If you do only one courtyard, then even if you do it badly, it doesn’t ruin the whole area. Right now there are just a lot of big projects. The whole plan is set.”

Built-in cost-cutting inducements and a toothless inspection regimen encourages public housing administrations to interpret the plan by recruiting cheap migrant workers, demolishing entire neighbourhoods and starting all over again with the new “preserved” hutong: “new-tong.” Near-forgotten traditional crafts are outsourced to untrained amateurs.

“They abandon almost all the materials,” explained Hu. “They throw everything out, send it to the trash dump.”


Do It Yourself


When architect Barbara Muench bought her Beijing courtyard home near the Drum and Bell towers, plaster was falling off the walls and the paint on the window frames was cracking. The wood columns and rotting roof beams did not meet. Traditional materials proved scarce, traditional building skills even scarcer.

Muench tried to incorporate as much original material as possible, carefully salvaging old grey half-bricks and tiles from a nearby demolished gate. She employed a mixture of pig’s blood, tung oil, linen and other ingredients to the wooden columns, making them more insect resistant. Her husband spent two weeks training a carpenter to make traditional wooden windows compatible with modern insulation standards. Waterproofing and insulation were added to the walls. This approach, believes Muench, is replicable and affordable.

“We know these sites are protected and we should just protect them,” Hu said. “It’s not just a sense of social responsibility; it’s about following the heritage laws and conservation laws that exist. There are rules you have to follow when you renovate.”

Another interesting alternative approach can be seen at Yandai Xiejie Hutong in Houhai. Here, the government did not invest in demolition or preservation of its increasingly dilapidated hutong. Instead, they simply told all the local residents that they had no plans to demolish their homes. Assured their property would not be demolished or taken away, residents immediately began trading, repairing and restoring.

Like its residents, the government appears to take pride in the hutong. Tourism has stimulated the economy, alleviated poverty and provided employment. Old houses have been converted to bars, restaurants and boutique shops, sparking even a mini-revival of local arts and crafts.

Hutong have always had shops and restaurants, but now they have expanded to meet the growing needs of visitors.

Both for better and for worse, commercialisation of hutong around Houhai and Nanluoguxiang has fundamentally altered their original character: an issue so incredibly complex it provides a welcome diversion from watching the bulldozers erase history.