Why old Beijing's crumbling courtyards face extinction

Preservationists decry the loss, but some residents are tired of living without plumbing, electricity, repair

For years, Zhi Yang lived in an apartment outside Beijing that came with her job as a translator. But she was always partial to the hutong area next to the grand Forbidden City: a complex first laid out by Kublai Khan, where cramped alleys and high walls hide a network of the traditional courtyard houses that once stretched for miles, defining Beijing's architecture and way of life. (Hutong are, properly speaking, the narrow alleys in these areas.)

Tired of the hour-long commute to work, Ms. Yang and her husband finally bought a lot in a preserved hutong area called Houhai Lake. They spent two years planning, cajoling, and finally - last month - erecting a state-of-the-art hutong home with heated floors and a traditional south-facing doorway to catch the morning sun.

A mile away, Mr. Li's experience was quite different. An auto-factory worker who declined to give his first name, Li's hutong was demolished last month after the city gave him 10 days notice. The tightly knit neighbors, who took in one another's laundry when it rained and stood watch for thieves, are now scattered. "They came with force," Li says, trembling as he stands in a pile of rubble. "My family has lived in the house since the 1940s; I was born here.... We weren't prepared."

As China's capital gets more crowded and property values and high-rise construction deals become more lucrative, the old hutong are being given the heave-ho. Once as numerous "as the hairs on a cow," to use the Beijing phrase, homes have been steadily demolished over the past decade to make way for the vision of a new metropolis.

In 1999, Beijing's leaders slowed the pace of destruction, set aside 25 protected zones in the city center, and seemed to respond to a chorus of concern by various local and foreign lobby groups. Yet only about 5 percent of the hutong of yore will survive once the dust clears. The official figure is 25 to 30 percent, but these numbers include the massive imperial palace complex of the Forbidden City, ceremonial temples, and a large park.

Newer is better

China's version of the classic story of preservation vs. modernization shows that most of the impulse is to modernize: In this foreign investment mecca, local developers can work sweetheart deals with friends in the Communist Party, and working-class people prefer better housing.

Still, Beijing preservationists lament, the hutong are exceptional.

Graceful garden courtyards were for centuries the central architectural emblem of Beijing. Goldfish ponds, ornamental trees, and flower pots were carefully arranged in a garden, around which were set four rooms in a quadrangle. Until 1949, single families - ordinary people, not just upper classes and royalty - owned courtyards, which symbolized not just living space, but civilized life. Tea houses, schools, temples - all were courtyard settings.

In her 1942 book "Destination Chungking," Chinese writer Han Suyin described "the mounting terraces ... the arched doorways and their golden roofs sweeping downward in curves of sheer power ... the essential design, the inevitable exact proportions, the soul releasing magnitude - is ... the final statement on concrete beauty of the Chinese philosophy."

The tile roofs have a shiny, grainy texture seen, for example, in the film "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." They have a practical side: Tiles were laid on packed dirt that allows the rooms to "breathe" in summer.

"Until 1949, Beijing was a complete old city, a courtyard city untouched by World War II - a typical Oriental city, with the charms of Paris, Rome, and Venice," says Xu Yong, owner of Hutong Tours, whose bicycle rickshaws wend some 75,000 tourists through the alleys each year.

Mr. Xu, who first drew attention to the disappearing hutong in the early 1990s, says some 3,000 hutong areas existed in 1949. "Beijing needs to be a modern city. But we think tradition and modernization can exist together."

For most Beijingers, debates to save hutong seem an exercise in luxury for foreigners, a few romantics, and intellectuals. The old courtyards now exist in a mish-mash of sprawl - untidy rooms and countless misshaped add-ons, a legacy of the Cultural Revolution.

Cab drivers shrink at entering the twisting uncharted alleys, which often dead-end abruptly. Many dwellings have no power, heat, or water. "I think it's a little romantic to speak of saving them," says Jha Aimei, a long-time resident and scholar. "You only need to watch an elderly grandmother walking across thick ice at 5 a.m. to go to the public toilet to be dispelled of this idea."

Dave Jacobson, Yang's husband, agrees. "Our view is not a 'Boo-hoo, old Beijing is being torn down.' We like old things. Our degrees are in antiquities," he says. "But it's a little late to be up in arms about what is happening here. The old city began to be ruined in the 1950s."

"It's never too late," counters Laurence Brahm, an executive with the New York-based NAGA consortium, which owns several joint ventures in China. "Conditions in the hutong are very poor. But the city should recognize that restoration is actually more profitable in the long run, than the kickbacks from construction fees that is driving this process."

Mr. Brahm has financed the restoration of three courtyards, one of which will open in two months as a boutique hotel. He says that many hutong are turn-of-the-century gems and worth restoring.

The hutong story traces in many ways the evolution of China since 1949, when the Communists drove out the Nationalists. Mao Zedong opened Beijing to let in literally armies of people from the countryside. Soldiers, officers, and Party officials began appropriating courtyards. One-family quadrangles became the residences of five to eight families.

Yet while Beijing grew from 500,000 residents to more than 10 times that between 1949 and 1970, no real construction programs were allowed. The hutong soaked up the influx.

At first, courtyard owners were allowed to charge rent. Then, under the Reform of Private Business Act in 1957, the state collected from the new "tenants," while giving owners some interest on an assessed value of the property.

During the Cultural Revolution, the state claimed ownership of any property occupied by the new dwellers. Original owners often fled to the countryside.

By the mid-'70s, owners were allowed to return and claim their part of a subdivided courtyard. They are today even allowed to "evict" the families that moved in after 1949, provided they secure and pay for a new property to settle them. Most can't afford it.

The character of the old courtyards suffered another change after the devastating earthquake of 1976. Many courtyard dwellers began shoring up their homes, using spare materials. That campaign led to new rooms added wherever they could fit.

No legal backing for owners

Hutong history and ownership issues are thus so tangled that proper restoration is a daunting proposition.

"The root of the problem is that 40 years ago they stopped respecting private property, and that habit has seeped into everything since," says Yang. "Until a respect for law and property is achieved, things won't really change."

Before Yang and Mr. Jacobson bought, for example, they searched for a property that only had one owner. It turned up in the form of a 2,900-square-foot half-courtyard. The two purchased both property and a 70-year old crumbling dwelling ("deserving of demolition," says Jacobson, who runs a joint-venture company), for about $150,000.

Before even dreaming of rebuilding, they signed a deal that included 30,000 yuan (about $3,600) in "facilitation fees." The fee facilitated wining and dining no fewer than eight local officials - anyone who could stymie the project. Just as the renovation was to start, their electricity permit was held up.

The couple's answer was to send a message to an e-mail hotline at the mayor's office. They pointed out that if China was going to join the WTO, host the Olympics, and make life nice for investors and foreigners like Jacobson, that such projects should not be squashed. Shortly after, the project was approved.

Developer Brahm says the paperwork and approvals to restore a single courtyard are the same as a 20-story building. To rehabilitate his Red Capital Club, he got stamps from three planners and city-construction, sub-district-construction, water, electric, police, sound, and environment officials.

Work often slowed since trucks can't enter the center city until after 10 p.m. (Jacobson and Yang solved this problem by paying Army trucks to deliver brick.)

Sources say the ongoing replacement of the hutong will continue. The quick money made on high-rise construction is too easy and too tempting to pass up, even though today the city is peppered with empty towers. Brahm says the Beijing housing authority has no incentive to put new money into the unpreserved hutong, and no longer repairs them.

Most working-class residents are ready to go. Mrs. Wu, who rents two hutong rooms with her husband, son, and in-laws inside Beijing's second ring road, is eager for an apartment.

"We've lived here since 1982, and we don't want to wait any longer for a toilet," Wu goes on to say. "The building is falling apart."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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