Michael Meyer is the author of a soon-to-be-published book called The Last Days of Old Beijing, which describes the disappearing hutong neighborhoods of Beijing, as well as the people who’ve lived there for decades. The book is on my to-read list, but I just watched a talk Meyer gave at the Asia Society in New York.
Meyer lived in the old hutong neighborhood of Dazhalan, an area the size of Vatican City yet with over 57,000 residents squeezed into the narrow lane houses that have defined Beijing life for 600 years. Living without heat, air-conditioning, plumbing, or hot water, Meyer describes both the sense of community he felt around him, as well as the real physical discomfort that the residents of these neighborhoods feel – just imagine living in a brick house, with no insulation, in the middle of a Beijing winter!
While I often hear about the destruction of the old hutong neighborhoods, Meyer’s talk illustrated a few points I hadn’t seen before.
– The hutongs are vital centers of community and commerce, yet lacking in creature comforts we take for granted: in-house toilets, heating, and hot water. This poses a huge dilemma for preservationists as modern standards make these living conditions unacceptable.
– While a vital part of Beijing’s history, the hutongs are often not built (or more likely, repaired) with the highest construction standards. Furthermore, they were originally designed for a single-family, but almost all have been split and cordoned off into cramped living quarters with as many as 8 families in a single courtyard.
– Many hutong residents will happily accept government buy-outs on their land in order to move to modern apartments in the suburbs of Beijing.
I completely understand the two opposing forces at play here. From weekends spent wandering the back lanes of Beijing, I ‘ve fallen in love with the charm and history of the hutongs. However, I’ve also known friends who’ve moved into hutong apartments in the summer, only to leave immediately after they spend their first night shivering in the fall frost. Neither demolition nor the “Disney-fication” of the remaining alleyways are the answer; but I think there’s got to be a way to bring these communities up to par with modern life.