Monday, July 27, 2009

Raze the Red Lanterns

A large hutong neighborhood near to my home has been demolished. I was not so shocked that it happened, but was shocked at how quickly it all transpired. The neighborhood is between my home and the Caochangdi gallery district, which I travel to regularly. It couldn't have been more than two or three weeks since I had last passed by.

And, Poof. It's gone.

The red area in the first picture is the now-demolished neighborhood, and the yellow arrow shows the spot from which I took the picture. The third picture shows a part of the empty plot. You can see quite easily in the second picture that the area was dense with housing.

Since this area is on the edge of Beijing's urbanity, I was sort of surprised that it went down with such haste. There are many hutongs in the center of the city, some of them being preserved as cultural heritage, but some are still marked for demolition. The infamous character chāi (拆) is painted on structures that have been been given a death sentence. It's a fairly common site around Beijing, and it's also a recurrent motif in films and other visual works surrounding the Three Gorges Dam project, such as Jia Zhang Ke's "Still Life". Here's one example from a neighborhood south of the Forbidden City in Beijing.

Most likely, some cookie-cutter, luxury apartments will drop down on this plot, giving shelter to the growing middle-class. The former inhabitants were probably dealt the fate of so many before them: a minimal compensation package and a lack-luster apartment even further away from the center.

As an end note, I was with a young Chinese couple last weekend, and while walking to a restaurant we started talking about housing in Beijing. The district we were in had a mixed-bag of quite new apartments and buildings dating back to the 60's (that's ancient by Chinese standards). In turn, we each pointed out the buildings we liked as we progressed down the streets. Invariably, all of my choices were at least ten years old and all of their choices were less than ten years old. This did not come as a surprise. However, when the conversations turned to "sìhéyuàn", the courtyard houses that are the building blocks of old hutong neighborhoods, we all agreed that it would be pretty awesome to live in one. Indeed, it would.

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