The Death and Life of Old Beijing
A firsthand account of the Chinese capital's struggles to preserve its past in the face of rapid development and Olympic glory.
July 19, 2008
Because they don’t own the home outright, my neighbors have put little of their meager salaries into its upkeep. Since the 1950s, that responsibility has fallen to the Municipal Bureau of Land Resources and Housing Administration. It holds the property rights to most of Beijing’s vernacular architecture, the single-story courtyards that line the hutong. Decades of subsidized rents, budgetary shortfalls, overcrowding, and neglect have eroded the houses, built with perishable materials such as wood and earthen bricks. As the homes rot, they are condemned in lots by the municipal government and auctioned to developers who raze the neighborhood, erasing not only the homes and the hutong, but also a unique pattern of life.
In China, preserving the past usually means resurrecting the dead—restoring imperial, uninhabited structures, or rebuilding them in an idealized form to put on display for paying customers. What’s “old” looks new, because the wooden beams are freshly lacquered, the roof tiles unbroken, and the painted details vibrant for lack of grime. Restoration of Asian buildings has long followed this pattern, and so they do not display the romantic decay of Europe’s stone monuments. Pulling down and rebuilding structures made with perishable materials is cheaper, and more efficient, than repairing them. The result is that truly old artifacts—such as courtyard homes—evince the decrepitude of the past, instead of its glory.
According to MIT Department of Architecture head Yung-Ho Chang, whose Beijing studio, Atelier FCJZ, is located at the Old Summer Palace, “One reason people in China don’t understand the notion of preservation as Europeans do is that Western architecture is characterized by different eras and governments, whereas Chinese building materials and design remained largely unchanged over 2,000 years.” While a highly visible and visited site such as a cathedral was a portal back to a specific time, in Beijing, old buildings were seen as reminders of one, pre-Communist period: feudalism.
Yet as Beijing has evicted whole communities, it has raced to repair structures that it had until recently derided as fossils of a backward regime. Now the buildings represent Chinese culture, and earn revenue. Between 2000 and 2003, the capital spent three billion yuan ($360 million) preserving sites popular with tourists—an amount nearly equal to that spent in the same period on preservation nationwide. Another six hundred million yuan ($72.6 million) was budgeted for heritage protection from 2003 until 2008. The total investment equaled Beijing’s heritage protection outlay “for several decades before 2000,” according to the state-run newspaper China Daily, and went to tourist sites such as the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace.
Old Beijing’s ardent defender, the late architect Liang Sicheng, warned officials that they would regret razing the city walls, whose last sections came down in the 1960s. “In regard to this question,” he wrote in 1955, “you are backward. Fifty years from now, history will prove that you are mistaken, and I am correct.” After the city won the bid to host the 2008 Olympics, workers tore down 2,000 homes to rebuild a mile-long portion of the demolished city wall. The structure was attached to the single remaining corner tower and incorporated 200,000 of the original wall’s gray bricks, returned by scavengers following a government appeal.
Matthew Hu, managing director of the nongovernmental organization Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center, said that preservationists faced the hurdle of pitching conservation to a government that prioritizes new development. In his office, set on the grounds of a former temple, Hu explained, “Even when people want to preserve architecture, they often do not know how to do it correctly, using traditional materials and methods.” Hu cited a recent initiative to fix nearly 1,474 courtyard homes in the inner city. The plan is well-intentioned, yet tears down homes and rebuilds them cheaply, using red brick. Though original residents remain in the community, the historic fabric has been rent, making the homes easier prey for developers, who can argue they are devoid of heritage value.
Hu also admitted that NGOs and preservation activists are hamstrung, given that land rights to most inner-city neighborhoods have been transferred to developers, often linked to the local government. Across Front Gate Avenue at Fresh Fish Junction, posters on condemned courtyards urge, “Build a New Beijing to Welcome a New Olympics.” Yet the fate of city-center hutong neighborhoods had been decided before the city won the rights to host the 2008 Games. From its start in 1990 until 2003, the city’s Old Dilapidated Housing Renewal (ODHR) program has evicted more than 500,000 residents from the city center, the municipal government admits. Unofficial estimates go as high as 1.25 million residents.
In 1988, national policy was changed to allow local governments to raise resources through the property market. The state still owned the land, but it could transfer usage rights. Municipalities put a parcel of land on the market; developers bid for its rights; the winning bidder paid for its long-term lease, usually 70 years. The developer could build on the land or apportion the property and sell off parcels. Given a lack of property taxes or municipal bonds, property transfers became the key to a city’s growth.
The ODHR program was launched as property prices skyrocketed. Between 1990 and 1995, Beijing’s 20 real estate companies grew to more than 600. The revised city plan announced the creation of a “Central Business District” east of the historic core, and a “Financial Street” to its west, though it retained height restrictions around the Forbidden City.
While the majority of residents were eager to move out of shared, dilapidated courtyards into their own modern apartments, many did not want to be marooned in the far suburbs, away from their inner-city neighborhoods. A common saying went, “Hope for razing, fear razing”—pan chai, pa chai. Among residents’ complaints, the lack of transparency was near the top. At the Beijing City Planning Exhibition Center, where models depict the capital’s future form, authorities responded to visitor complaints by adding a warning to the ticket window: “The exhibits do not detail demolition plans. Please buy your tickets with prudence. No refunds.”
Even a neighborhood’s designation as one of the “Twenty-five Historic Areas in Old Beijing City” does not guarantee its protection. This preservation plan covers 17 percent of the inner city. When combined with already protected spaces—former imperial parks and palaces—this area marks a total of 38 percent (9 square miles) of Old Beijing as protected, leaving the rest open to destruction.
In 2002, shortly after the announcement of the Twenty-Five Historic Areas, the district government said that one of the included areas, a neighborhood named Nanchizi near the Forbidden City’s east moat, would be destroyed, in order to be preserved.
“This is all a real estate scam,” a resident was quoted in the local press. “They say our house is too old and falling apart, but they won’t let us fix it up ourselves because they want the land. What’s intolerable is that our centuries-old houses will be replaced with newly built, ancient-style, two-story buildings.” Today, the rebuilt neighborhood is a quiet bedroom community at the heart of Beijing, and a popular address for officials.
A similar outcry met the closing of Front Gate Avenue, the artery that connects Tiananmen Square to the Temple of Heaven, in Beijing’s south. In the winter of 2005, the shuttered shops displayed computer-generated drawings of the gray-brick, old-looking buildings that were to come. In large characters, a slogan said, “Protect the ancient city’s appearance.” In the drawing, the people strolling on the future, pedestrian-only Front Gate Avenue weren’t Chinese, but Caucasian. The only shop signs depicted Pizza Hut and Starbucks.
On a billboard that covered the destruction of a building, a slogan promised: (The ancient capital reappears). Overnight, someone had neatly excised part of the second character, so it read: (Farewell, ancient capital).
The Front Gate Avenue project—since renamed Heavenly Avenue—involves SOHO China, one of the nation’s highest-profile developers, known for hiring “starchitects” to create live-work communities, as well as the Commune by the Great Wall, a collection of houses now managed as a hotel. “The Front Gate area was part of my childhood memories,” recalled SOHO C.E.O. Zhang Xin, who grew up in Beijing. “I was surprised how dilapidated it had become. I said, ‘Maybe we can do something.’ It needs development, but it also needs conservation.”