Knock 'Em Down

Posted by Pete DeMola on 21. Jul 2010

BEIJING, JULY 21 -- Many residents of the capital city are upset about the increasing chatter regarding the opaque plans to transform parts of Beijing's historic Gulou neighborhood into a tourist attraction called Beijing Time Cultural City.

It's been covered extensively in both domestic and international media outlets, so I won't issue a summary of the project here.

But I will, however, bring you the opinion of one who has actually lived in a hutong and agrees, for the most part, with the plans to reduce the area to rubble.

My own.

While visions of a sanitized, tourist-friendly destination replacing 32 acres of history do not sit well with me -- anyone who knows me can tell you that my heart is inextricably embedded in the clamor of the area -- life in a hutong isn't exactly the premier living experience and I empathize with the area's lifelong residents who have been residing in these rustic, archaic enclaves for their entire lives.

My conversations with local friends and other folk have all shared a similar refrain:

Knock 'em down, but offer the residents fair compensation packages.

The following is a guide to hutong life for expats whose only experience with these crumbling crapshacks has been the occasional stroll (or rickshaw ride) through, viewing the experience through both rose-colored glasses and the viewfinder of a camera.

People always discuss the remarkable neighborhood cohesion of hutong residents, but I surmise that it is because they don't have a choice. What's the alternative: engaging in multi-generational combat? I didn't think so. Privacy just isn't an option while living cheek-to-jowl with dozens of your fellow citizens -- particularly for those who have to go poo alongside a bunch of their closest buddies. Gossip abounds about everything from your houseguests to your love life. Nerves fray and tempers flare. See below.

I didn't have any air conditioning, making last summer a preview of the eternal hellfire and torment that I'll inevitably encounter upon reaching Hell. One of the units in which I resided had only three windows: one was behind a bookcase, the other in the (tiny) kitchen and the remaining one looked directly into the group of Silver Surfers kicking it outside. Whenever I'd leave the shades (or the door) open, folks would peer inside and issue a never-ending stream of commentary, ranging from "the foreigner lives in a hutong" to "why does the foreigner masturbate so much?" (Just kidding.) Needless to say, the windows and curtains remained closed, resulting in a rather uncomfortable summer.

Everyone knows that the months between October and April are brutal -- even those of us nestled safely in our luxury condominiums in Central Park or wherever. Now imagine getting through it without any central heating. Or a kerosene heater pissing fumes throughout your living room. While I never spent the winter in my unit, I did shiver throughout the month of April as the spring humidity dripped down the cement walls.

Most of you have probably walked by a public bathroom and wrinkled your nose in disgust. Now imagine living in a neighborhood that is surrounded by them as a fine August wind spreads the wealth around. In addition, trash collection works differently in these parts -- you place it outside your door to be collected later -- resulting in a rather ripe perfume.

Old Stuff
Everything is ancient: from the pipes to the kitchen facilities, taking up residence in a hutong unit is like taking a blast to the past while everything else rockets forward. Sure, one could make the argument that new stuff can always be purchased, but there likely won't be any room for your wrap-around leather couch, dining set or flotilla of kitchen appliances.

Contrary to popular belief, hutong life is not quiet. A cursory look at any structure is enough to ascertain that the walls are very thin -- often only two bricks covered with a thin layer of cement. In addition, being walled in on three sides amplifies noise, resulting in a panoramic echo chamber. Sharing a unit next to a laundry business, I was awakened at 5am every morning by the sounds of scrubbing and chattering, a phlegmatic dog hacking and wheezing and the sizzling of hot plates -- all of which absolutely contributed to a yearlong battle with insomnia. Other sounds: arguments, bellowing houseguests, the melodious laughter of children, booming televisions, the daily chatter of dozens of conversations and fucking. Lots of fucking. What goes around comes around, so believe me: the neighbors and I became intimately familiar with one another in more ways than just our shared bathroom habits.

What do you think is more important for contemporary Beijing: the preservation of its rich cultural heritage or urban renewal? Tell us below!

Hutong photo courtesy of Flickr user michaeluyttersp through Creative Commons licensing.

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