Thursday, 28 April 2011

Preservation v progress – the future of Beijing's hutongs

There was an article in the Chinese newspaper ‘China Daily’ a few weeks ago that I found rather interesting, and I’ve finally decided to get around to writing about it.  It concerned historic building conservation issues in Beijing, but particularly with regard to the historic hutongs (胡同), the living conditions for their inhabitants and the desire that some people have shown to save them from total destruction.

If you’re not aware of what they are, hutongs are traditional Chinese neighbourhoods made up of a number of courtyard houses, known as siheyuan (四合院), accessible from small alleys.  Individual hutongs can feature many small, winding alleyways and are places in which people can quite easily become lost.  They are thought to date back to the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) and were once used as administrative divisions within the city.  For many centuries they were the standard housing for Beijing residents of all social classes.  Although the majority of remaining hutongs date from the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties some are older, and even appear in historic poems and are still associated with historical characters who lived, worked and died in them.  The oldest surviving hutong is believed to be Sanmiao Street, said to date back more than 900 years.  Interestingly, and definitely not recommended for fat tourists, the narrowest hutong is Qianshi Lane - just 0.7 metres wide!

Even the names of many hutongs are fascinating and reference local characters or features, bearing names such as the Lane of Grand Councillor Wen, Goldfish Lane or the Lane of Piggy Bank.

But to return to the article, what interested me about it was that, although China Daily is something of a Communist party mouthpiece publication, it raises an interesting and fundamental issue regarding conservation – to what extent should the needs of the modern inhabitants be taken into account, and to what extent should 21st Century living standards be imposed on historic fabric?  Or to put it another way, should terrible old holes to live in be protected because of their age or rarity?  Although the article was written about China, and China is facing this problem many times over, it applies to everywhere and should not be disregarded, even in our so-called developed countries.

So what did the article actually have to say about the hutongs being torn down and replaced by more modern apartments?  Well, it started with quite an aggressive tone towards those wishing to see the hutongs preserved,

‘the razing of centuries-old hutong … caused a hullabaloo among conservationists as they rallied to protect China’s vanishing cultural heritage.  With modernity blazing throughout the city like an out of control steamroller, they argued, what will be left of China’s past?  What I want to know is this: how many of those conservationists, or reporters, ever lived in an old, un-renovated hutong house?’

The article continues to paint a less than delightful picture of life in a hutong:

Despite the quaint, otherworldly charms of some of the siheyuan, most of the demolished hutong dwellings, put simply, stank. Who wants to share hole-in-the-floor latrines, have rats and cockroaches as pets, or stoop to get in the front door?

There was the leaking roof , cockroaches in the kitchen, blankets of dust like you wouldn't believe, and constant power outages.

Every day, the stench of grandma's wok-fried breakfast would swarm up the stairs, take my olfactory glands hostage and make my eyes bleed. Every day, one of the old ladies would shout at me to turn off the hall light, despite there being no switch outside my apartment allowing me to do so.

In terms of health and hygiene, there was no fire escape. If there was a fire, basically, we were all going to fry. The place wasn't just dirty. You could have raised an army of darkness from all that crud, if you knew the right incantation. The dust on one of the light bulbs outside my front door alone probably contained enough microbes to wipe out an entire solar system.

However horrible that existence would be the issues that are raised are ones that - how can I say this without causing offence – are overwhelmingly caused by the inhabitants rather than the fabric of the building.  The poor sanitation, public health and electrical supply problems can be solved by the government.  The dirt and dust, holes in the roof and antisocial behaviour are, quite frankly, the fault of the inhabitants and their choice of lifestyle, rather than of the historic fabric of the hutong.

Another issue is that the replacement apartments so lovingly described by the article’s author are often out of the financial reach of the hutong’s inhabitants, making the simple solution of tearing down the hutongs and putting everyone in clean, modern air conditioned apartments with gleaming floors and plasma TVs an unrealistic one.  The hutong inhabitants would be moved somewhere else (probably no more appealing or sanitary) and their place taken by the new middle classes - more acceptable to show to the world but hiding rather than solving a social problem and still ultimately destroying the heritage.

However, I would like to keep this article on the issue of historic building conservation, not get sidetracked into a discussion of the rights and wrongs of Chinese social habits and government rehousing projects.

An important word in the first quote above is ‘un-renovated’ – the hutongs could retain their character and still provide a more modern standard of living, much as a Medieval English manor house can feature modern wiring and appliances alongside it’s original features.  As far as I’m aware, most inhabitants in historic English houses also manage not to wallow in their own filth because of the age of the building either.  The all-or-nothing ultimatum of the article is, in my opinion, its biggest flaw – the only options put forward are for people to continue to live in squalor or for everything to be torn down and replaced with a modern high rise apartment block.  This is clearly far too lacking in the shades of grey and mitigation that is central to historic building preservation.

Beijing is, of course, a city developing at an alarming rate, and problems regarding preservation of historic buildings frequently occur.  One issue is that decisions are not backed up by a developed suite of national heritage policy.  ‘Progress’ is the overriding driver, not to mention the desire to make money at all costs.  Dissenting voices are of course to be heard, from the residents of such neighbourhoods themselves as well as from international heritage organisations.

So what is the mitigation?  Certainly there needs to be some element of surveying the surviving hutongs and an attempt to quantify their relative significance.  At least then decisions on the future of individual hutongs can be made within a context and with prioritisation.

One interesting, if rather flippant, suggestion was made by the article’s author:

Not that I'm advocating destroying a country's natural and cultural heritage wholesale. But, I mean, isn't that why god invented museums?

So the answer to the problem is to bulldoze all of the hutongs except the few that are chosen to be turned into museums?  Hardly.  I work in museums and love them dearly, but in this instance I have to disagree with the author of the article.  A sanitised museum experience (dare I say especially a Chinese one with all the inherent political interference) is not a replacement for a living tradition any more than a Disney theme park is an adequate replacement for a real Medieval castle.  Although there may certainly be some scope to interpret hutongs through museum displays and public access, I do not see this as an adequate mitigation for the destruction of the remaining ones.

However, there is perhaps a route forward in the general area of finding alternative uses for the hutongs other than purely as accommodation.  The China Daily itself ran another article in September 2010 highlighting a hutong that has reinvigorated itself by combining the residential area with “coffee shops, boutiques, restaurants and drinking rooms.  In the words of one resident "Here you get the real hutong feeling, the real Beijing feeling."

The article states that:

perhaps the most charming aspect of this Beijing gem is the sense of community held by business owners and residents.  Adhering to the classic hutong attitude of community, both intertwine to create a comfortable, unflashy business district that doubles as a relaxing place to take a stroll.Here all of the business owners are all really nice, it's more of a community than a business street and people visiting the street get that feeling’.”

Perhaps such initiatives, although obviously not suitable for every single hutong, suggest that there are ways forward that preserve something of the spirit of the hutongs without turning them into static heritage attractions or seeing them all disappear under a mass of those ugly generic Chinese apartment blocks.

The first step is surely getting people to see the hutongs as more than dirty relics of a time when China was humiliated by the rest of the world, and realise that once they have allowed these historic neighbourhoods to be replaced with characterless apartment blocks, they will never be able to get them back.

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