China Power

The Disappearing Hutong

Beijing risks losing some of its most interesting heritage with the destruction of the hutong.

Today we have our first guest entry from Shanghai-based Bill Dodson, director of Strategic Analysis at TrendsAsia Ltd and author of the upcoming book ‘China Inside Out: 10 Irreversible Trends Re-shaping China and Its Relationship with the World’. Bill, who normally blogs at This is China!, will be contributing regularly for us and we’re happy to have him on board.

The last time I’d been in Beijing was in 2008, just a week before the much-hyped Olympics. And although last month I was back to attend a conference and trade show on clean energy, I made sure to make time to visit an area I’ve enjoyed taking in since 1999: Hou Hai.

Hou Hai was once a collection of traditional Beijing homes characterized by slate-gray facades and black-slate tile roofs. The Chinese call the neighborhoods of single story buildings hutong. The larger structures in the hutong are siheyuan, which have courtyards and were originally built to house the extended families of men that served the Emperor in one capacity or another. I fondly remember during the Communist Party’s 50th birthday in 1999 ambling with a Chinese friend through the close-knit neighborhoods, taking in the pungent smells, the raucous gatherings and the relaxed atmosphere of the winding alleyways. Now, the hutong at the lakefront have been turned into cheery pubs and restaurants with languorous outdoor seating for tourists and locals alike.

In 1949, the Communist Party divided the siheyuan into four or five apartments each to house as many families. An American who lives in the hutong near Hou Hai told me he receives electricity bills with four or five family names on it. He once asked one of his neighbors who one of the people was that was cited on the bill. ‘Oh, that guy died back in 1970-something,’ the neighbor answered matter-of-factly. 

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Now, the hutong are under threat like never before. I was shocked and saddened driving up to Hou Hai this last visit to see blocks and blocks of siheyuan turned to rubble. All that history simply gone, and with it the remaining vestiges of charm once associated with Old Beijing. Though the government had mowed down thousands of the single-story dwellings at the turn of the new century to improve the lives of citizens, local district governments have become more brazen about the motivations behind destroying the charming residences.

A friend who invited me to a rooftop viewing of the USA World Cup game against Algeria told me that one hutong district has been sold out to make way for a theme park. The local district had acquired 20 million RMB through the flood of loans that gushed from banks in 2009, and had to spend the money. Though local residents put up a strong and very public fight against the park, the final decision was made without the town hall meeting on the issue that the local government officials had promised. Residents will be moved to the outskirts of Beijing, to a district called Shunyi.

Chinese history has become plastic in a way Chinese may regret in the future. If they even remember. Or care.