Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Documenting Beijing's Disappearing Hutongs

Author Michael Meyer next to the word "chai" which means "destroy"
Tonight the Asia Society hosted author and journalist Michael Meyer to give a talk about his book, The Last Days of Old Beijing.

In one hour he gave a quick but concise encapsulation of how he got to China, and why he wrote a book about Beijing's hutongs or alleyways that are fast disappearing.

He's obviously given this talk many times before, but he doesn't bore of it -- and instead he injects a lot of life and detail that makes his experiences easy to relate to.

In 1995, Meyer joined the Peace Corps and being a Spanish teacher, he expected to be posted to a Latin American country. Instead they suggested a whole bunch of other countries and places, including Vladiovostok, but he rejected them all.

Eventually they told him it was China or nothing and added this was not Club Med, but the Peace Corps. So he accepted and in three weeks got rid of his apartment, car and other worldly possessions and moved to Sichuan for two years.

He admits he didn't have much to do there but since he was tall he was asked to play basketball for the college he was at and they apparently won every single game because he was the point guard. He also taught English and learned Chinese.

In 1997 he moved to Beijing and discovered 25 percent of the capital was supposedly under protection. But he later discovered these included places like Zhongnanhai, where the senior leaders live, Jingshan Park, across from the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and the Temple of Heaven. Basically these were not places people actually lived in.

And he started noticing neighbourhoods, ones he enjoyed wandering around in, were being demolished, and thought he should write a book about it. This was in 2005. So he thought the best way to research the book was to actually live in a hutong.

Meyer found a place in Dazhalan or Dashilar in colloquial Beijing accent, and he details all the hurdles (including humorous ones) he went through to not only find a place that was yet to be demolished, but also get the neighbourhood police to agree to a laowai or foreigner -- the first one -- to live in a hutong.

What's also interesting that Meyer points out is that where he lived could be traced back to maps from 1757. And he is quick to also say that living in a hutong is not a romantic experience at all. That's because hutongs are small courtyard houses, there is hardly any privacy, but more importantly, there is only one cold water tap for nearby residents to use, no heat in the winter, no air conditioning in the summer and worst of all -- having to go down the street to the public washroom -- with squat toilets.

Despite the living conditions, Meyer enjoyed the thriving community right at his doorstep. On the main lane, there would be lots of street vendors selling everything from food to everyday goods. One of his friends observed you could get everything here except open-heart surgery. And the elderly liked it because they had a dense social network to help them with anything.

Little Liu and her father who keeps racing pigeons
And so Meyer began profiling many people in his neighbourhood, such as his best student's father, who was a night watchman at Tiananmen Square, but also kept racing pigeons, his neighbour, an elderly widow, a family that had a small noodle shop, and a man who collected recyclable material like cardboard, cans and plastic bottles.

However, the districts became cut off from funding for social services and in a bid to fund them themselves, they came up with the idea of demolishing dilapidated homes, move the residents elsewhere and sell the land to developers or at least get a cut. This accelerated after 2001 when Beijing was awarded the 2008 Summer Games.

He explains that once people agree to move out of their homes, the money is transferred into their bank accounts and they must get out immediately because it will be demolished that day before anyone can have any regrets. Interestingly Meyer notes one of his colleagues who lived in the hutong since her childhood didn't have fond memories of the home itself, but of the trees just outside where she and her grandmother used to collect the leaves and seeds.

The end result is Qianmen -- or the tourist version of it, complete with stores like H&M, Zara and Starbucks. It looks like, as Meyer says, a Disneyland version of the place, devoid of much character, and people just pass through the place because they can't afford what's in the shops.

And so Meyer also talks to Zhang Xin, head of SOHO China, a developer about how she feel about demolishing a neighbourhood and then creating a pathetic fake version of it.

Yanshou Jie, the street outside where Meyer lived
She explains it could be worse -- that's because for the Qianmen project, she had to deal with 36 different officials and plans, and having to cater to their whims, such as the shape of the birdcage lamps along the street. The minutiae of what she had to deal with made it seem amazing the project was even completed.

Today where Meyer used to live is still an empty lot to the left of Qianmen, while to the right it's filled with fast-food places like KFC.

He still comes back periodically to update his book that came out in 2008, and now there will be a Chinese version of the book that will be published in the mainland -- there is already a version available in Hong Kong and Taiwan. However the mainland Chinese one has a few edits thanks to censors, but only six paragraphs were cut, much to the relief of Meyer.

He's not nostalgic about the hutongs per se, but wants to raise awareness of their history and culture, and why they cannot be easily preserved, as they are made of straw, wood, mud and pig's blood.

It's a constantly evolving story which has applications elsewhere, as these hutongs can also be a model for communities elsewhere in the world; which is why Meyer's book has interested city planners particularly in San Francisco, as they are keen on creating the convenience and communal aspects of hutongs that are found in Beijing.



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