Changes in cities, whether social or physical, reflect changes in its people, making cities the perfect mirror images of mutations in urban DNA. This is why in this era of incredible stories of Chinese economic development, following the development of cities allows us to understand how its people have actually been affected by the changes we read about on a daily basis.
Wudaoying hutong in Beijing’s Dongcheng (“East City”) is no different. Changes in domestic spending patterns and livelihoods are clearly visible, as the idea of foreign-style alternative travel is attracting large numbers of visitors and investment. Having been compared to New York’s Brooklyn, Beijing’s Wudaoying hutong offers a large range of products and services that could easily be associated with an on-trend alternative Western lifestyle, albeit one localized to fit a new kind of Chinese hipster.
China’s middle class has expanded rapidly. Calculations predict that by 2022, more than 75 percent of China’s urban consumers will be earning between 60,000 and 229,000 renminbi ($9,000 to $34,000). Averaging the range of incomes between Brazil and Italy in terms of purchasing power parity, only 4 percent of urban Chinese households were in this range in 2000, with an incredible 68 percent in 2012, as estimated by McKinsey. In line with this increase in spending power, China’s National Tourism Administration reports steady growth in domestic tourism, both in absolute numbers and in total revenue.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Nestled near the Lama Temple and the Drum and Bell Towers, Wudaoying hutong is an old Beijing-style street, consisting of restaurants, cafés, houses, shops and bars. It has clearly benefited from the increase in domestic tourist. The hutong connects to a vast maze-like network of old but fast disappearing residential streets, and exemplifies the process of gentrification, demonstrating the introduction of a new leisure industry and an up-and-coming consumer demographic.
Although gentrification is certainly not unique to this area, having occurred in many Western as well as Eastern cities, the process at Wudaoying is unique as domestic tourists have initiated its transition. The owners of two vintage stores opened in the past year, both Beijingers and in their 30s, observed that the majority of their clientele was Chinese, and cited Golden Week as their busiest time. Other storeowners held similar views, claiming domestic trade as their main source of revenue.
Apart from a few Western restaurants, the majority of cafés are aimed at domestic tourists. When talking to the owners of some of the Tibetan style cafés, they identified the importance of a Western-style alternative atmosphere, as preferred by domestic tourists. These homegrown sightseers thus perceive their travelling experiences as Western-influenced, as well as bentu, or local.
Consequently, tourist spending has increased, leading to a construction boom along the hutong, further boosted by government funding. As a result, there is a doubling in rent and the availability of luxury products in the area. This displays the darker side of gentrification, as low income households are unable to afford these products, and their old-fashioned neighborhood shops are lost in the process.
For the time being, though, it is still a mix. For example, taking the road next to a restaurant that sells handmade British-style sausages as well as home-brewed ale will still lead into a typical hutong alley filled with cages of chickens and geese, and generations of Beijingers clinging to this lifestyle. Walking further down the street leads straight into an older couple’s bedroom. Unfortunately, all too often, lower income families will end up being (sometimes forcefully) removed from these locations, as people with more money end up renting the now more expensive houses, or property developers gain hold of the land, planning the construction of more expensive houses on the land. On top of this, the cheaper Chinese restaurants will also slowly disappear, until those living in the neighborhood are no longer able to afford its cost of living.
A taxi driver once told me that his parents used to live in a hutong near where I now live, and that they had to move because they couldn’t afford life in the area anymore. He told me how a lot of older Beijingers, many of whom lived through Maoism as children, moved into traditional style houses further away, resisting the move to modern apartment buildings. In doing so, they are often forced to leave their communities and friends behind. To be sure, state-led urbanization as linked to state-led capitalism, argued by social theorist David Harvey, threatens rights to the city. This individual right and freedom to collectively exercise power to shape the city is thus severely curtailed, as the process of generating surplus capital takes precedence.
Despite the entrepreneurial spirit, the Chinese state still calls the shots. In the case of Wudaoying, it’s the local government. And while the transformation of Wudaoying brings benefits for some in this top-down process, many will ultimately be left asking who owns the city, and who has the right to it?
Margaux Schreurs is a freelance writer based in Beijing.