Backstory — The Fate of Old Beijing: The Vanishing Hutongs


After some long delays, I now present to you — The Fate of Old Beijing: The Vanishing Hutongs. About the movies:

In the face of China’s rapid modernization, the world’s most populous country is struggling to preserve its cultural heritage, and nowhere is this more visible than in the ancient alleyways and courtyards of Beijing.

Once a ubiquitous feature of Beijing, the hutongs are more than simply housing; they are actually a way of life. Entire families live in single, crowded courtyards, often with no bathrooms. Yet despite the lack of modern amenities, the communal aspect to life within the hutongs means that few want to leave – even as their neighbourhoods are being demolished and redeveloped. UNESCO estimates that more than 88 percent of the city’s old residential quarters are already gone, most torn down in the last three decades.

In a three-part series, filmmakers Jonah Kessel and Kit Gillet explore the vanishing world of Beijing’s hutongs, the realities of life within the narrow streets, and the future for these culturally-irreplaceable areas of China’s capital.

Now, for those interested — some backstory:

This project started ages ago (first mentioned on this blog, May 2, 2010), with a single photograph I took of a friend’s former neighborhood after it had been half-demolished. From a photograph, to a photo series, to some video clips, to a video, to a video series, to an interactive package the content developed over the course of a year and grew like a snowball falling down a hill. While Coverage of the hutong issue had been widespread in the East and the West, I was often offended at the quality of some of the journalism I was seeing. Especially since these stories were about the area where I have been living in for almost two years. I saw things in Western newspapers that said things like “The Chinese government wants to Disney-fy Gulou.” I was like … well, that type of editorializing doesn’t help tell people what’s going on. However, particularly the multimedia I had seen produced in a bilingual format seemed to be leaving out the most important part of the story – the residents.

I wanted to give them a voice — but I also wanted to give the voice of their reality. The area of concern here has tremendous cultural value; however, the living conditions of the area are not that of a modern society. The real question is: how can you modernize at such a rapid pace and preserve your culture. In answering that question there are a couple agendas that you can see:

  • You have the developers and the officials who seem to be holding hands down the aisle — they have a clear agenda to create revenue – quickly. However, the government does invest millions of RMB ever year into the old city. But how that money is spent is an elusive and questionable topic.
  • Then you have the residents. Most of their agendas are to have better living conditions. They want hot water, kitchens and indoor toilets. They want access to emergency vehicles. They want homes which contain heat so they don’t have to rely on coal throughout Beijing’s harsh winters. However, they do hold dear the communal atmosphere of the hutongs.
  • Then you have conservationists, whose agenda is to keep old Beijing — real. However, they do understand the reality of the residents. Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Agency’s (CHP) approach to educate the population on the value of the culturally significant area has been very effective. They have gained media attention on the subject which puts more pressure on the government, developers and officials to think twice before gentrifying Gulou.

So I began shooting and filming attempting to give all parties involved a voice, while keeping my opinion out. We talked to current residents, past hutong residents, city planners, professors, activists, NGOs – even lawayers who deal with displacement cases.

As a foreigner living in China, it can be hard to really understand how complex issues can be, especially with such an enormous population. And I think over population is the real key to this problem. There isn’t enough space. For example, if you want to have an indoor toilet in your house, someone will have to move out. And for most of the residents living there, moving isn’t financially feasible.

The hutong issue goes far beyond Beijing. How Beijing deals with the problem will be a model for other cities in China. This problem exists throughout the country and the developing world. When you think about how to deal with the problem, a couple options jump out right away:

Should the government Renovate, Redevelop or gentrify? We found almost all Beijingers were against gentrification. Person after person told us how much they disliked fake hutongs and particularly the Qianmen area. Residents were also against redevelopment, but at the same time don’t have money to renovate. Many felt economically trapped in the hutongs. They want better living conditions but feel powerless unless the government relocates and compensates them.

Compensation was another big issue. With rising real estate prices, the compensation isn’t enough and residents are often forced to move to areas far outside the city center. Ten years ago, the money was enough, but now residents feel cheated.

This project was a large collaboration and the community really got behind it. Journalist Kit Gillet and myself spent hundreds of hours trying to piece this together along with the Asia Society who financed and coproduced the project with us. However, without the help of others it wouldn’t have been possible — including music by the unfathomably talented composer and guzheng player Wu Fei, historic imagery from Beijing Postcards, audio post production work by Jules Ambroisine and countless hours of translation work by Ami Li and Xiaoming Wei. Beyond this tremendous support from the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center (CHP) and Beijingers of all kinds, sizes and sorts made this possible.

The greater project includes three videos, a digital hutong tour, two slideshows and an interactive package that can be viewed here.

7 thoughts on “Backstory — The Fate of Old Beijing: The Vanishing Hutongs”

  1. The main problem is the level of education. If Chinese people really cared, things would be done in a better way. The problem comes from the fact that most people here in Beijing just don’t care at all

  2. Hi Jonah: Love your blog, photos, and videos. I’ve been amazed by the process by which Chinese cities erase their past, over the 5 years I’ve lived in Chengdu. From what I see, it’s mostly a process of greed / quick profit / opportunism. I’ve always been suspicious of the buzzword “progress;” I look for the money first – who profits, who loses. Corrpution, lack of central coordination, powerlessness of residents and preservationists, collusion between Party and Big Business – it’s a wet dream for unrestrained capitalists. Thanks again.

    1. Hi Rojer – thanks so much for your feedback.

      While I was studying at Massey University in New Zealand years back, I was focusing on media studies in relationship to indigenous cultures around the world. We read a fantastic book which I’ll never forget called “Victims of Progress” where author John Bodley sites countless examples of how the word “progress” has been used as a tool of colonialism and in many ways cultural genocide.

      Although its certainly an academic book, its extremely interesting and worth the read …

      In fact, even talking about it makes me want to read it again.

      Check it out here.

  3. A really great article and film, Jonah.
    You’re right in stating that often the issue of the hutongs being demolished hasn’t been completely accurate in much of the media’s coverage. And so your article was very informative, especially regarding the complexities of balancing modernisation with preserving the culture.
    If only a solution could be agreed on and implemented!

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