Beijing's Expanding Hutong Graveyard

Lost toy in destoryed hutong
Over the course of this blog and its predecessor, you’ve seen lots of imagery from Beijing’s hutongs. Most of these images have been positive or amusing scenes depicting life in the small alleys that make up the inner-second ring of Beijing. However, the reality of many of these alleys is far from positive or amusing. In the name of progress, the traditional architecture along with the unique, culturally rich way of life contained within the narrow alleys is disappearing.

A lamp post stands amongst rubble of destroyed hutongs

While shooting a video this week on urbanization I filmed an enormous hutong graveyard just north of Beijing’s Drum Tower. Mass media has been reporting on this but normally we see photographs of historic monuments or people muling about socializing as way to depict the destruction. This is a very poor representation of the issue and makes old Beijing look like Disney world. Take these two recent examples:

If these photographers had walked ten minutes away they would have been in the environment you see here. If anyone has more examples of this poor coverage send the link along and I’ll add to the list of “poorly represented photos on this subject.” However, @maggierauch points out:
Twitter Comment

The photo stitch below is the combination of 11 photographs. Click here for a bigger, detailed version. This will give you a bit of perspective on the mass of the landscape.

Walking around these destroyed areas is very eerie. As if a bomb went off, the post-apocalypse style landscape is a ghost of culture. Some walls are left standing while others create a sea of red bricks on the ground. People’s belongings are scattered about as if they didn’t have time to pack — or perhaps they had no where to bring their things.

Hutong Block destoryed

From guitars to bull skulls, posters to lamp posts — the signs of abandoned life are everywhere. He Shuzhong, founder of the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center says:

After decades of development, the number of hutongs [in Beijing] has shrunk to about 1,000, down from more than 3,000 in 1949 … Few inner-city areas retain the traditional feel and historical value of the Drum and Bell Tower neighborhood.

While the hutong I live in is alive in well, there’s no guarantees it will be like this tomorrow. The photos above and below are about a 15 minute walk from my house. Many however, are trying to stop this including He’s organization. The reality is toughly spelled out on their Web site:

The Drum and Bell Tower neighborhood, also known as Gulou among both locals and foreigners living in Beijing, is a unique neighborhood. Despite Gulou’s cultural importance, multiple sources have indicated that a 5 billion RMB budget has been allocated to convert 12.5 hectares of the Drum and Bell Tower area into a ‘Beijing Time Cultural City’ – putting the neighborhood in serious danger. Once again, Old Beijing is facing another serious threat of demolition. On one side we have well-established laws and regulations that stand to protect Beijing’s history and culture. On the other side, however, there is a 5 billion RMB project waiting to commence.

Other posts on hutong life and photography

More links on the subject

11 thoughts on “Beijing's Expanding Hutong Graveyard”

  1. Hi Jonah,

    Interesting that you coin the phrase “hutong graveyards”. I see many in Shanghai but demolition and clearing up move at lightning speed given the pressure to create new land. They demolish any house that has signed a contract with the developer to move out even while the remaining families are holding out for last minute negotiations.

    I’ve seen mannequins, abandoned toilets, posters (most amusing when they indicate the era they are from) and random litter. However, there are also a dedicated group of scrapers that collect everything, and are surprisingly efficient. So much money to be made post demolition, these graveyards in Shanghai’s metropolitan areas are but fleeting memories.

    Sue Anne

  2. Very sad. This is my favorite neighborhood in Beijing.

    Between the “ok, let’s demolish” order and the first attack of the bulldozer, how much time passes? How much time do people and businesses have to vacate and relocate?

    1. Hi Preston,

      I think people normally have plenty of notice from the day they find out they have to move – and the day the bull dozers come. I have friends right now that are being forced out of the area and I think they had about 4 months notice. There is some pretty strange things that go on for these people. I met one, who lost his restaurant and essentially lost millions of US dollars. See his story here:

      Residence often are told to leave, but than given more apartements in return further out of town. This was a very common practice to build the site of the Shanghai Expo but also goes on here in Beijing. Check this story out about a guy who lost his house but was given 6 in return.

  3. This just makes me ill.

    I’ve been coming to Beijing since 1979, and while I totally get that some of these “historic” neighborhoods were pretty much slums, the destruction of Gulou would be a stake in the heart of the best part of old Beijing. Some things are worth preserving, flaws and all, and in the rush to modernize, Beijing is losing its soul.

  4. It’s a great shame to see old communities disappear like that. There’s an entire lane behind my place in Shanghai that has been transformed into ugly tower block since I’ve been there and it was so sad to see signs of people living there amongst the rubble, right to the bitter end.

    I’ve referenced your blog in my post here on the same subject – keep up the good work Jonah!

    1. Hi Aimee – Thanks so much for the comment. I’m working on a short movie documenting the Beijing Cultural Heritage Project and their efforts to help preserve culture during this time of rapid development. Although this was shot for an event of theirs, some of it will be used as b-roll for the movie. Hopefully it will be done by late next week. Thanks for the link and comments.

    2. Also, not sure if you have a VPN but I have a short digital tour of the hutongs, which essentially floats through Beijing letting you see what’s going on, on an average day in the modern hutong here:

      This is also part of the movie being made. If you don’t have a VPN, give a shout and I’ll upload a Quicktime version which will be China friendly (I should do this anyway …)

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