History Destroyed As China
Prepares For Olympics
'How Could They Demolish Them So Easily?'

By Geoffrey York
The Globe and Mail
""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 said.
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 cultural sites.
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 generations disappear."
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 this."
© 2004 Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc. All Rights Reserved.


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