Wrecking ball looms in old style Beijing district

For 80-year-old Liu Shuhui, living out her old age in dignity means having a kitchen, a bathroom that’s not outside and a bed that she doesn’t have to share with her granddaughter.

Liu makes her way slowly but steadily through a cluttered courtyard that leads to her two-room home that is about 200 square feet. She is short but solid. Her face is round and creased, with wrinkles around her eyes and mouth. When she speaks, she looks as though she’s smiling.

“It’s difficult enough, difficult enough,” she says, gesturing to their kitchen — a stove and faucet in the corner. Liu shares her home with her son, his wife and their daughter. They cook, eat and bathe all in one space. In the spring, they still wear their coats inside. The house always smells of dried sweat.

Liu lives in what can be considered the old city of Beijing, a neighborhood of dirt alleyways and squat courtyard houses. Peddlers cycle up and down the alleys calling out their services: “Shoe repair!” “Knife sharpening!” “Scrap collecting!” The Drum and Bell Towers, two of the capital’s oldest structures, protrude from the maze of gray brick.

In January, the Dongcheng District government announced plans to turn the alleys, or hutongs, surrounding the Drum and Bell Towers into a “Beijing Cultural City.” Residents say they’ve received notice that demolition will begin in June, but representatives of the project have only confirmed that building will start before the end of the year. Plans include an underground shopping mall, parking and a museum. Most of the 625,000 residents, including Liu’s family, will have to move.

To many people, including locals such as Liu, the Drum and Bell neighborhood is a slum, not a convenient place to live and nothing for Beijing to be proud of in 2010. But preservationists, many of them foreigners or Chinese who have lived overseas, say this is China’s cultural heritage — not just the narrow alleys and the buildings but the people living here and their traditional lifestyle.

“We’ll be losing a piece of Beijing and gaining another shopping mall,” said Wang Chunye, 30, an owner of a coffee shop between the two towers.

By some estimates, there were 3,200 hutongs in Beijing after World War II. Now there are maybe 1,000.

The Drum and Bell Towers, first built during the Yuan Dynasty in the 13th century, hark back to the days of a strictly ordered imperial society. Today, the Drum and Bell neighborhood is a mishmash of buildings and facades constructed in the centuries since. Many structures are decrepit, and the residents are among the poorest in this area of Beijing.

“This is a very important part of the city. We need to clean and fix up this area to reflect that,” said Luo Zhewen, head of the state Ancient Architecture Protection Committee and a consultant for the Cultural City project.

Despite its ramshackle appearance, the area strikes foreigners as charming, and Chinese from outside the capital say it has a distinct “Beijing feel.”

“Without people, there is no culture,” said He Xuzhong, a lawyer who heads the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center, or CHP. He calls the neighborhood China’s only example of “living cultural heritage” and contrasts it with sterile, reconstructed sites such as the Forbidden City or a recent project that razed another residential area of hutongs.

In 2008, the neighboring Chaoyang District redeveloped a well-known hutong neighborhood near Tiananmen Square. Qianmen, once a messy, bustling block of food shops and street stalls, is now a wide avenue of stores that include Apple, a Starbucks and a Haagen-Dazs. The local government calls it a cultural preservation project, pointing to its kitschy Qing Dynasty architecture and a restored 1920s tram that people can ride for $3.

“They think this is saving culture,” He said. “We won’t have courtyard houses and alleys, but hotels and gourmet stores with the Bell and Drum Towers as backdrop.”

Residents are divided over the project. They have posted almost 2,000 comments under the thread “The Drum and Bell Tower area to be demolished” on Baidu Tieba, a popular Chinese Internet forum. Many are practical, worrying that even with compensation they can’t afford an apartment in the city’s sky-high real estate market. Others are attached to their homes.

“We have lived here from generation to generation, now they send us out … to be peasants. Who are they going to ring the bell for? I do not want to go,” one user wrote.

The district government first posed the plan to residents at a town hall-style meeting last year, but since then public debate on the project has been constrained.

In March, a meeting planned by the CHP for residents in the neighborhood was canceled, according to an e-mail from the organization, “because it was going to cover two basic but important issues: the rights of local residents and protecting [the neighborhood’s] cultural heritage.”

According to Yang Yong, the public relations officer of the company heading the redevelopment, planning is still far from complete.

“This is a very complicated project because it involves a lot of cultural heritages in Beijing,” Yang said. “We need to make a really detailed plan because of that.”

Chinese media have already reported details of the project — it will cover a little more than 30 acres and has been allocated a budget of $73 million.

Some residents of the Drum and Bell neighborhood say preservationists, who don’t live in the hutongs themselves, are missing the point.

“Losing the life of the local residents? Is this a zoo? Are our lives simply for foreign tourists to gawk at?” wrote one resident on CHP’s website. “Who of you has cared about our lives? If you stay for one day you’ll think it’s great, but how about living here for 10 years?”

For Liu, it’s not cultural heritage that matters. It’s whether her family can finally have a nice place to live.

Liu wants to leave for a new home in one of the Beijing suburbs, probably a high-rise apartment, although she concedes that she’ll regret leaving her community.

“I’ll miss living next door to my neighbors. But we all need to think about ourselves and what we need,” she said. “What we’ll miss, that’s a separate issue.”

Kuo is a special correspondent.