Thursday, April 10, 2008

hutong happiness

Looking down our Hutong.

Looking out our bedroom window onto courtyard.

Looking across courtyard to bedroom.

Beijing's hutongs are intricate maze-like lanes, made up of courtyard houses built with incredible attention to detail in accordance with the principles of feng shui. Hutong is a Mongolian word meaning water well, indicating that homes like these were built around wells since the 13th century. Due to the imperial rule that no building should be higher than the palaces, these low-level buildings spread out from the Forbidden City, creating a large part of the physical landscape of the city. More importantly, hutongs formed the social framework of the city. With several families living in close proximity, using communal courtyards and toilets, the community network and support system was very tight. Still today in the hutongs of south Beijing and around Houhai, men drink beer on the streets while watching the world go by as women gossip and knit, and children chase and kick balls off the walls of the narrow alleys.

But increasingly, sprayed on the wall of a hutong in white paint, is the character 'chai' – demolish. The increase in land prices, combined with the urgent need for further infrastructure, has led to large swathes of hutongs being destroyed to make way for road expansion and new property developments. With almost no legal tenants' rights, combined with the rampant corruption of officials and property developers, land is cleared with almost no concern for either the heritage being destroyed or the people who once lived there. Residents are often offered paltry compensation and have to move outside the city – forced evictions are not uncommon, with families protesting and even using suicide as a tool to be heard.

Records show that there were 3,679 hutongs in the 1980s. That figure has dropped by over 40 per cent, with up to 600 hutongs destroyed each year. Homes, shops and restaurants have all been demolished, most notably in the south of Beijing around Qianmen and Dazhalan – home to some of the most interesting and famous hutongs in the city.

Walking through bulldozed Hutongs 8 April 2008