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Hutongs no more

Whether residents like it or not, Beijing is getting a facelift for the Olympics



Wandering around parts of old Beijing it appears as if life continues on as it has for many years before. Cyclists make their rounds, children play and vendors set up shop as another day begins in the vast networks of alleyways and courtyards referred to as the “Hutongs” of Beijing.

Lined with people’s homes, shops, markets and services, the Hutongs have long been the veins of Beijing — possibly dating back even earlier than 1215 when Genghis Khan and his Mongol army demolished the area known as present day Beijing.

Making up social networks and forming vibrant communities that have evolved over generations, the Hutongs not only house millions of Beijing residents but also form micro economies that provide many with their livelihoods. They are clearly a huge part of China’s cultural heritage as well as a way of life for the many residents that still continue to call them home.

For visiting foreigners, it is scenes like these — tucked away amongst cobblestone lanes lined with brick homes — that many yearn for and have traveled from far afield to experience. Cruising around on a rented bike or choosing to explore at the pace of your own two feet, this slice of Beijing life is taken in utilizing all five senses. Second only to the Forbidden City, these animated scenes of daily life continue to be a top draw for tourists visiting China’s capital, a city home to over 15 million residents.

Pedaling around aimlessly for hours at a time amongst Beijing’s famous and lesser known Hutongs was definitely one of my most memorable experiences in China. Little alleyways and courtyards seemed to snake on forever, accommodating animated residents all going about their daily lives. Smells both good and bad pervaded the streets and the silence almost seemed surreal compared to the madness of the modern boulevards and highways mere blocks away, where rickshaws and bicycles attempt to flow in harmony amongst the chaos of the ever increasing numbers of cars and motorbikes tooting their horns in a deafening standstill.

Recognizing the Hutongs historical place in China, the Beijing government has looked to the future and designated some districts as protected to preserve cultural heritage. With the Olympic Games just around the corner, however, this way of life for many of Beijing’s residents has already come to an end. Except for those areas designated as protected, many of the remaining Hutong neighborhoods have been living on borrowed time.

In recent years an alarming number of these cultural marvels have been disappearing at a ferocious rate. Throughout the city are piles of rubble reminiscent of war zones that once housed generations of families and local business. Headlines have put the rate of evictions at 13,000 residents per month.