Historic Preservation or Just Ripping Out a Way of Life in Beijing?

“Isn’t it more convenient,” he asked, “if I can just get those outside of where I live?”

Along the hutong where he lives and Ms. Yuan works, several businesses have closed: a hardware shop, a congee and dumpling joint, the place that sold houseplants, the fruit and vegetable shop operated by the cheerful young woman, and the stall with the dour one who nonetheless made decent jianbing, a crepe-like breakfast staple.

“How do people live a life?” Ms. Yuan asked.

Rosie Levine, a scholar who has worked with the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center and recently completed a thesis on the “bricking up” campaign, said culling small businesses was in fact the goal.

“Commercialization has historically been seen in Chinese society as a polluting force,” she said.

That too has had the effect of removing from the capital migrant workers from other parts of China, helping the authorities achieve their goal of capping Beijing’s population, which is nearing 22 million.

Many of the city’s small shopkeepers are people who poured into the city during the transition to capitalism in hopes of making a living.

Others attribute the work to China’s leader, Xi Jinping, the first of the country’s Communist leaders to have grown up in a Beijing hutong.

In 2014, he toured the neighborhood on one of his rare excursions in a public place, evoking nostalgia for the place that seemed deeply personal.

“We must protect historical and cultural legacies,” he said then, “as we cherish our own lives.”

Very few of the hutongs survive in anything close to their original state. In 1949, there were an estimated 3,300 hutongs; today barely 1,000 remain, according to a survey Ms. Levine helped conduct for the Beijing cultural center.

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