The Fate of Old Beijing

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.

For many residents, hutong life is all they have ever known, and their memories and lives are intertwined strongly with the old streets and alleyways. Yet as time has gone by, many of the courtyards have become overcrowded and the buildings themselves have deteriorated. Despite the cultural heritage of the hutongs thousands of them have been razed in the past decades to make way for urban development destroying centuries of history and contributing to the shrinking of the remaining hutong space.

While hutong residents may not have the easiest lives, few want to leave the streets and alleyways they have long called home. However, with China’s current legal system offering few avenues of discourse it is hard for residents to save their homes after they have been slated for demolition. Some are torn down to make way for new subway lines but, increasingly, a large number are simply torn down to be replaced by large high rise buildings that primarily benefit the land developers and local officials.

If Beijing’s hutong areas are to be retained in one form or another, decisions need to be made about whether to invest money in keeping the original structures or replacing them with replicas built in the same style but offering modern amenities – a move that many suggest destroys the soul of the buildings. While for former hutong residents forced or happily leaving their old homes, a new way of life beckons.

Beyond video documentation of this area, I’ve also been photographing and blogging about the visual and social environment since I moved to China. Here are some entries on Beijing’s hutongs:

Dont worry! You can do it from wherever you are with this virtual tour.

Beijing may have fully embraced the modern world, but its hutong streets retain much of their traditional charm. Locals continue with the day-to-day habits that would have occupied their parents and parents’ parents, while locals eat, drink, play games and go about their business, often on the bicycles that have filled the streets for decades. However, changes are afoot, with construction sites a continual presence on most hutong alleyways and each year bringing a shrinking of the remaining hutong space.

Take a tour through just a few of the thousands of hutong alleys and lanes that give Beijing some of its unique charm.

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Visual Journalism | 视频记者 Cinematography

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