My Hutong Heartbreak: Beijing’s destruction of ancient neighborhoods slowly ending a way of life

Back in July 2004 — while taking a break from my job teaching Taiwanese school children English — I took a trip to Beijing. I remember one day my girlfriend (and now wife) rented bicycles, and were fortunate enough to spend the better part of the morning exploring some of the city’s hutong. For those who may not know what the hutong are, they are old traditional alleyways and courtyard homes that once existed all over the city.  The below video (the first of four chapters) does a beautiful job illustrating their place in the city’s ancient history. Fascinating stuff.

As we pedaled along, I remember women hanging laundry; families preparing food through open windows; colorful doors and a feeling of community. These alleyways seemed to stretch on forever. It was a kind of history — with buildings dating back many centuries — that I couldn’t fathom, being from the relatively “new” Western coast of the United States.

Simply put, I was in awe.

Honestly, the next time I thought of the hutong was just prior to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Hearing that these remarkable communities — so full of life — were being ripped down in advance of the games to develop structures such as office buildings and roads felt like a kick in the gut.

Fast forward to a recent article in the Atlantic on the continuing and devastating destruction of the hutong in Beijing, and the sadness has retuned again. It’s easy to forget that historical preservation struggles happen all the time, all over the planet unless you are constantly reminded of them.

Rainy Beijing --- July 2004

Of course I’m not arguing that all new development is inherently wrong. However, it is important that the decision makers put forth a good-faith effort to acknowledge the development’s impact on the historical, environmental and general welfare of the community in which they are building — and not just trying to make a quick profit or a superficial cosmetic upgrade.

Sadly, from what I’ve been able to find,  it seems as if the latter reasons are the primary motivating factors in the case of the hutong.

While the rise of the Chinese economy and its place on the world stage has been flabbergasting, it has obviously come at a price, as The Atlantic author Jonathan Kaiman shares in the article.

“At the height of the city’s headlong rush to modernity in the 1990s, about 600 hutong were destroyed each year, displacing an estimated 500,000 residents. Seemingly overnight, the city was transformed from a warren of Ming dynasty-era neighborhoods into an ultramodern urban sprawl, pocked with gleaming office towers and traversed by eight-lane highways,” writes Kaiman.

For many, this loss of history is a tough pill to swallow. Some groups, such as the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center (CHP), are doing their part to stem this tide.
If you are interested in the hutong, and historical preservation, please see an important video series on the hutong produced by Beijing-based videographer and photographer Jonah Kessel.

— Dan Hiestand, Houstory Publishing Marketing Director