- ""When one hutong disappears, a beautiful name
existing for centuries is extinguished. When one courtyard home disappears,
the stories of several generations disappear."
- BEIJING -- When a foreigner
tried to buy the two stone lions at the gate of her historic courtyard
home, Ms. Zhou stoutly refused to sell. The lions belonged to China, she
- The local authorities, however, were uninterested in
history. A few weeks ago, they sent a bulldozer to demolish Ms. Zhou's
home and the stone lions were smashed into pieces.
- "I can't understand it," said the 48-year-old
nurse, who refused to give her full name. "Those lions belonged to
our country. How could they demolish them so easily?"
- All along her Beijing street, traditional courtyard houses
are being torn down by wrecking crews, despite evidence of their historical
importance. With a real-estate boom gaining momentum and the 2008 Olympics
approaching, Beijing is rapidly tearing down its famed hutongs - the narrow
alleys filled with courtyard houses that are 100 to 400 years old.
- Entire alleys of brick-walled tile-roofed homes, among
the most beautiful and distinctive symbols of China's heritage, are being
demolished to make room for new high-rises. By some estimates, Beijing
had about 3,600 traditional hutongs in the 1980s. Today, fewer than 2,000
remain and the number is falling fast.
- Even when buildings are designated as historic sites,
they can be knocked down in the frenzy of development. Local officials
often collude with private developers or accept bribes. Part of a 680-year-old
Taoist temple was recently demolished to make room for a financial district
in Beijing, even though it was listed as one of China's most important
- The new symbols of Beijing are the apartment skyscraper,
the glass-walled office tower and the luxury shopping mall. Authorities
are spending $22-billion (U.S.) to transform the city in time for 2008,
when it will host the Summer Games.
- Down the street from Ms. Zhou's courtyard home, at a
government office where the demolition is being supervised, local officials
puffed on cigarettes as they scoffed at questions about the destruction
of the hutongs.
- "Where is the heritage?" one demanded. "They're
only old and broken houses. There is an order from the government, and
the residents must move."
- Even those in charge of historical preservation seem
to agree. Mei Ninghua, director of the Beijing bureau of cultural relics,
insisted that most hutong residents are happy to abandon their old houses,
which are often overcrowded and lacking in basic water and sewage services.
- "If the Ming and Qing dynasty style is kept, how
can people have the modern services they need to live?" he asked.
"Some people think we can completely preserve the old city, and that's
impossible. We can't preserve all of the hutongs. Some of them are in poor
condition, and almost all are lacking fundamental services. It's inconvenient
for ordinary people to live in them."
- But the alleys of Ms. Zhou's half-demolished neighbourhood
are full of residents who desperately want to stay. They say that the traditional
community of courtyard life - with neighbours who take care of each other
- is better than the isolation of a sterile high-rise apartment. And the
historic homes are still in good condition, they insist.
- "I moved here in 1953 and it's very comfortable
and quiet," said Zhu Huisheng, a 61-year-old teacher. "Look at
the carved wood. Look at the walls - 3.5 metres high. It's warm in the
winter and cool in the summer. We have water, electricity and heating,
and there's a public toilet nearby. But now our 100-year-old house is going
to be knocked over, just because of a word from the demolition office.
They don't listen to us."
- In his hutong, 18 homes have been designated as historically
significant. Many are more than 200 years old, with beautiful lotus-stem
and plum-blossom carvings on the doors, screens and door posts. Yet 15
of the 18 have already been demolished.
- Across the city, Beijing has promised to preserve 658
traditional courtyard homes. But more than 50 of these homes have already
been torn down, according to Chinese media reports. Heritage activists
say they are running from neighbourhood to neighbourhood like firefighters
in an effort to save the buildings.
- "When one hutong disappears, a beautiful name existing
for centuries is extinguished," the Chinese newspaper Southern Weekend
commented. "When one courtyard home disappears, the stories of several
- Even in cases where the government does realize the importance
of history, it often comes too late. In the 1950s, Mao Zedong ordered Beijing's
ancient city walls to be torn down to make room for urban development.
Now the city is trying to rebuild the Ming Dynasty wall, but only a few
sections have been reconstructed.
- Of the 62 square kilometres in Beijing's old city, only
about 37 per cent is designated for preservation. And even in those areas,
the traditional hutong character will disappear as residents leave. The
cost of renovating and restoring the courtyard homes is beyond the means
of all but the most affluent.
- "People who can't afford the repairs will be replaced
by those who can afford it," said Mr. Mei of the cultural relics bureau.
"It requires abundant financial resources. We are thinking of giving
subsidies to poorer people to help them to keep living there, but so far
this is only an idea and it hasn't been approved. We are still studying
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