Passages Into Beijing's Past

Capital's alleyways reveal a centuries-old way of life, but are threatened by development

LIKE so many others in Beijing, Tea Leaves Lane is a hutong with a history.

As one meanders through the hutong (narrow alleyway), a plaque on an aging building now used as the neighborhood kindergarten announces that the late Chairman Mao Zedong once attended a meeting there in 1919.

Farther up the narrow lane, bustling with bicyclists and strolling families, one building behind a blind wall once belonged to a ``celebrity'' from the 16th-century Ming dynasty, residents say, although a commemorative tablet was ripped down by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution, and no one is sure just who he was.

Welcoming visitors at the entrance to the gray-stone courtyard house he and his wife share with 11 other families, Mr. Wang explains that his building had once been a newspaper office before the Communist victory in 1949. Or so he had heard.

``But only old people can remember these things,'' says Wang (not his real name) as he invites his guests into his cramped, two-room quarters. ``I have lived here for as long as I can remember.''

For a foreigner confined to life in an urban high-rise, rambling through one of Beijing's hundreds of hutongs is a passage into a living past preserved, as if in a time capsule, from the modernizing creep of the city.

For most of its 800-year history, the sprawling Chinese capital was a dense grid of these unique neighborhoods stretched along huddled alleyways. The spiderwebs of hutongs were intrinsic to a city laid out on the principles of fengshui, the Chinese system of studying natural landmarks in order to determine the location and size of a building and enhance the welfare of its inhabitants. For example, the major buildings of the Forbidden City rest on a north-south axis and face south in order to avoid ``evil influences'' from the north.

TODAY, television antennas and even satellite dishes sit atop many gray-tiled roofs within these labyrinths. But the traditional life of old Beijing endures, and the patois of the hutong, with its twang and drawled r's, echoes through the alleyways. (Hutong is a transcription of a Mongol word, hotlog, meaning ``water well.'')

''These hutongs have existed for as long as the history of this city,'' says Xu Yong, who runs a company that guides tourists through some hutong neighborhoods, ``and the common people who have lived here for generations are hidden deep inside.''

But increasingly the sheltered and ancient harmony of the hutongs is disappearing, for the alleyways are becoming an endangered species.

In their obsessive drive for socialist progress over the last four decades, China's Communists have torn down vast blocks of hutong houses, first to make way for the Soviet-designed Great Hall of the People, the Beijing Railway station, and other socialist monoliths in the 1950s. In the 1960s, more hutong-razing cleared the way for blocks of high-rise eyesores to accommodate the city's booming population.

What alleyways remained were often subjected to political correction. Starting in 1949, about 600 streets and hutongs bearing such melodic labels as Perfect Filial Piety Hutong and Flower Blossom Hutong were rechristened with names like Red-to-the-End Lane and People's Commune Road.

As economic reforms and growth have accelerated in recent years, the existing network of an estimated 3,000 hutongs is under siege from the city's blazing growth - which even outpaces the national economy - and from a frenzy of real-estate development.

Rural immigrants are flooding the already sprawling metropolis of 11 million people. Brutal crime is becoming common. Pollution has reached choking levels as streets overflow with more than 700,000 motor vehicles, double the number of 1988.

Beijing's congestion and rapid spread are overwhelming the hutongs. Street vendors and markets, a staple of traditional hutong life, are being pushed off the streets to make way for the growing stream of cars and bicycles threading through back lanes. Residents are being moved to shoebox-sized apartments in high-rises on the city's outskirts to clear space for new offices, hotels, and shopping malls in prime downtown neighborhoods.

Municipal officials have launched a new master plan to revamp the capital by evicting polluting factories and building a new transportation network. They also pledge to preserve what's left architecturally of old Beijing. But the urban collapse now under way seems almost irreversible, city residents say.

``With the high-rise buildings coming up,'' says Mr. Xu, the tour operator, ``the ancient hutong as a witness to the city's history is gradually disappearing. From a long-term point of view, this is a very unwise move. The hutong complements Beijing's history. It is the character of Beijing.''

LAST year, that pining for Beijing's past drew record crowds to a play about the disappearance of life in the hutongs. In Tea Leaves Lane, rumors that the hutong houses will be demolished to make way for a shopping mall have unnerved the residents and heightened their attachment to the hutong.

Conditions are primitive, and their rooms are cramped and rundown, Wang says. Living in a high-rise would provide more room and a measure of modernization.

But the trade-off would be moving to a far-off and unknown place and leaving behind his lifelong home.

''We are common people and don't know what future changes the government will make in housing policy,'' he says. ``But, even if we don't want to live in a high-rise, if we are told, we will have to.''

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