Beijing's old backstreets are right up too many tourists' alley

Tourists flooding into Beijing's old alleys are endangering a way of life

Almost every morning, Liu Yunjiang prepares a show for strangers at his house in one of Beijing's oldest neighborhoods. He starts by tending to his birds — cockatiels, pigeons and mynas he's taught to cry "Hello" in Mandarin — and then he walks his grubby Pekingese, Momo. Today, he'll welcome a group of eight people; the day before, 50 visitors crowded into his small traditional home.

As soon as the tourists knock on his courtyard door, he erupts with energy, cracking dirty jokes and offering up colorful anecdotes about bygone Beijing before concluding with a demonstration of his fighting crickets.

While his wife makes dumplings for the group, Liu, a former cook, steps out for a cigarette. The work earns him about $4 per head — not bad when the city's average wage is $866 per month — and this year he has made enough to build an extension on his house.

Liu, 64, lives in one of Beijing's traditional hutongs, gray brick alleyways lined with squat courtyard houses. Over the last few decades, thousands of hutongs have been bulldozed and replaced with skyscrapers or boxy apartment complexes as Beijing's population has swelled. The city had about 11 million people in 1990; it has more than 21 million today. By some estimates, the city had 3,200 hutongs in 1945, but only 700 to 800 remain.

Many of those, however, are no longer the same. On the street outside Liu's residence, vendors sell items as diverse as wriggling fish and steamed buns. Knife sharpeners pedal through on tricycles, offering their services.

These days, tourists are flocking to these neighborhoods, eager to get a glimpse of a romantic ideal of hutong life that once was. But the crush of visitors might be hastening the demise of these bygone ways.

In growing numbers of hutongs, crowds of camera-toting tourists have interrupted the rhythms of the neighborhood, changing the atmosphere and the economics. Just down the street from Liu's house, for example, is Nanluogu Xiang, a hutong that's become stuffed with cheap boutiques, chintzy bars and snack shops catering to thousands of tourists a day.

The travelers are even helping change the appearance of the neighborhoods, as authorities replace dilapidated original structures with reproductions to accommodate more visitors.

"In the old days, hutong residents were able to take a morning stroll, shop for food, take their birds out," said Gu Huimin, deputy dean of the School of Tourism Management at Beijing International Studies University. "But since there are so many tourists, their lifestyle has been changed. They now have to follow the tourists' way."

In the hutong, some elderly residents continue to clack chess pieces while others casually stroll up and down the alley, greeting their neighbors.

But domestic tourists, who once want to visit only major attractions such as the Forbidden City and the Great Wall, are increasingly keen to tramp through Beijing's old-time residential neighborhoods. During the three-day official May holiday this year, 30% of tourists visiting the capital displayed a clear interest in seeing the hutongs, the Beijing Daily reported.

Tourists can quickly commercialize a neighborhood, attracting outside businesspeople who set up shops but have little interest in knowing their neighbors or living in the area. The benefits of businesses are not spread equally among residents, Gu said, creating a gap between rich and poor.

Tourist businesses can drive up real estate prices: On Nanluogu Xiang, rents are 50 times what they were six years ago. Many longtime residents are more than willing to sublet their homes or move permanently to more modern accommodations, provided they're given adequate compensation.

Hu Xinyu, who works at the preservation-focused Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center, said the outflow, in turn, diminishes the sense of neighborhood identity that makes hutong life so appealing.

"Hutong culture is based upon communities," he said. "Without people, the hutong culture does not exist."

Tell that to developers, who have demolished entire neighborhoods to replace them with old-looking facsimiles that can accommodate modern retail requirements for space, light, heat and plumbing.

In some cases, buildings are removed. In October, a three-month project around the landmark Drum and Bell Towers, a short walk from the Forbidden City, was completed. The towers, dating to the 13th century, stand tall over an area that had been vibrant with cafes, boutiques and a rock music venue in hutong structures. Buildings between the towers were demolished to create a public square surrounded by walls. The local government said the point of the project was to return the small district, which was designated a historical and cultural protected area in 2002, "to its original appearance."

Still, in some ways, this was a victory for preservationists. A plan to turn the area into a touristy "Time Cultural City" was abandoned in 2009. It called for an amusement park with sundials, sandglasses and other antiquated time-telling devices, the Beijing News reported. The amusement park would have been linked to an underground shopping mall.

The proposal was shelved after heavy opposition from civic groups and residents. But conservation advocates can point to many other examples of what they see as misguided "restoration" efforts.

Exhibit A is the Qianmen neighborhood south of Tiananmen Square. The centuries-old shopping district was rebuilt into a sterile replica before the 2008 Olympics using modern materials. It now has stores such as Starbucks, Haagen-Dazs and H&M.

This "tourist-ification" is a major danger to hutong communities, architect Wang Shuo said. Once people realize how easy it is to milk tourists for cash, an entire neighborhood can quickly be transformed.

"There are so many tourists in China," Wang said. "If they all want to flow in and buy traditional Chinese tea or paintings, then the whole area can be like that easily. In terms of what you see and feel, it will turn in that direction," he said.

Although preservationists wring their hands, many residents say they don't mind the changes, and even see them as necessary or good. The squat wooden houses that used to surround the Drum and Bell Towers — many without toilets and with freezing interiors during the winter — were viewed by some as antiquated. And the 9-foot-wide alleys were too small for firetrucks and ambulances to enter.

Liu, the cricket trainer, doesn't mind the masses. He complains only that the streets are too congested, especially on weekends. "Cars can't stop, people can't stop," he said.

But many travelers are satisfied.

"It's a little authentic, but a little modernized," said a 23-year-old tourist surnamed Tang from the far western province of Xinjiang who was wandering around Nanluogu Xiang on a recent day. "I think it's OK."

Silbert is a special correspondent

Nicole Liu in The Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.

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