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.
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:
- USA Today: USA Today used these photos to describe the situation last week, which I thought was a bit funny (but to be fair, they were probably file photos or stock — although there is no indication of this).
- LA Times: Not only does LA Times also use a rickshaw driver, they chose to use a photo of a laowai (foreigner) driving it for fun while the man who makes a couple dollars a day walks behind the cart. Does this really illustrate loss of culture, history and actually homes?
- CBS: China’s Disappearing Ancient Homes
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:
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.
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
- Short commute to work for migrant workers in hutongs
- A MOMENT IN TIME: Where were you Sunday, May 2, at 15:00 hours U.T.C.?
- Home Number 6 in 1 Year
- Chinese Barber Shop
More links on the subject
- Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center
- Photo essay by photog friend Sean Gallagher on the subject: The destruction of the hutongs of central beijing
- Photo essay by photog friend Tim Wagner on the subject: Last days of the courtyards