Hutongs, the classic dilapidated, though picturesque, alleyways with crowded living-spaces and poor sanitation, made the news section of USA Today on May 27th. An article by Calum MacLeod entitled “Beijing bulldozes its old neighborhoods” raised a few basic questions that lead to more complicated questions about Chinese sociology and politics. How do and how should hutongs interact with modern Chinese cities, and why does Beijing seem so ready to demolish these popular tourist locations. Below is a consideration of the issues and questions that they raise.
1. Problems With Hutongs. Let’s get the negative things about hutongs in Beijing out of the way first. They are often dilapidated– and do not have indoor plumbing. Some have electrical issues and raise fire safety concerns. Bathrooms are established for an entire street. They also often have poor cobblestone roads and are prone to suffering flooding and muddy footpaths. The people who live in them are quite poor and they are often bothered by tourists who either walk or are carted around by pedicab drivers.
Hutongs also, as I discovered in some conversations with locals, are considered to be embarrassing– they demonstrate China’s poverty, something that the country hopes to leave behind as it becomes a world leader. If this view extends from common people up to China’s leadership, then perhaps plans to renovate Hutongs and make them plastic “show alleys” with new construction and clean walls, as was done in Qianmen District south of Tiananmen Square, will be the fate for most hutongs.
2. Good Things About Hutongs. Tourists love hutongs. Many travel on pedicabs north of the Forbidden City, around the Bell and Drum Tower, to Prince Gong’s Residence and even out to the back alleys beside Yonghegong Lama Temple in order to see a glimpse of what China once was. Hutongs, like Europe’s classic back alleys, are a picturesque stop and a treasure.
3. Beijing’s Compromise.
What Beijing appears to have attempted in order to retain the hutongs‘ tourist attracting potential, while improving sanitation, and removing poor people from the city center; is to remove thousands from their homes, widen some streets and to “refurbish” the hutongs— getting rid of much of the “living” street culture that made up the alleyways, and destroying the very flavor that draws people to experience them.
It is difficult to argue with claims that life in unremodeled hutongs is not a very good life choice. However,
some people have gentrified hutongs, improving the interior courtyards while retaining the beautiful reddish-brown exterior walls and cobblestone late 19th-century feel of the places. Perhaps a better solution to the Hutong problem is to keep them small and crowded and thus retaining Beijing’s distinctive character and remaining attractive to tourists but to gradually install upgraded plumbing, and to remodel the interiors to make them more livable. Either the hutongs could be increasingly gentrified as monied people buy property inside them (siheyuan, courtyard homes) in order to live close to the city center; or the city could subsidize the poor people to live there–maintaining their homes in traditional style as a cultural district that celebrates what China once was– a poor country that has gradually become much, much richer.
Is a compromise of this sort possible? Or are hutong’s only futures (1) to be plastered with 拆 (chai) signs, then demolished for necessary office buildings, or (2) to be turned into plastic, clean, and overly-sanitized tourist spots that are not to be lived in– or are to be lived in, but separated from the hustle and the bustle of the world?