Beijing’s Hutong in Transition: A Story of Bread and Bricks

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Beijing’s Hutong in Transition: A Story of Bread and Bricks

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Beijing’s Hutong in Transition: A Story of Bread and Bricks
By Jo Darrington

Photo: Varsha Mahajan

Inside they were packing. Boxes and instruments lay strewn everywhere. “Why?” I asked. They had to leave this place. Tomorrow it would happen. Victims were to be their big glass windows, the glass door, the second floor and the rooftop lovingly decked for BBQs and jamming sessions. He took us up there.
“Take a picture of me,” he asked. “To document this moment.”
They had been given four days notice to clear out before the demolition team were due to arrive tomorrow. “What will you do?” I asked. He said they would be moving to the SOHO a few blocks down.
A customer came in asking about his music lessons, what he could practice in the time until he could resume in their new studio. They offered us a guitar, a piano chair, some cooking stuff and a bottle of wine. “I think it’s expired.” he said, “It says 2009. But it will make good decoration.” We took it. A French 2009 Merlot. We drank it that night sitting on our new piano chair strumming our new guitar while we made ice cream.

The next evening I went back to the market. It used to be a bustling street, restaurants, meat and vegetable shops extending onto the road, bread, cold dishes, a Mahjong house. Now it was eerily quiet. One bright light shone out from a shop that had lost its front wall. Piles of rubble lined the street. A restaurant was still open, albeit being half bricked in. Bread was being sold from a hole where the window hadn’t yet been put in. Signs written on polystyrene informed shoppers that they were still open behind the bricks. A kind of desperation filled the air, the last battle between bread and bricks.
Two men with a tricycle piled high with windows slowly made their way down the street, casually sealing in the fate of the people within with glass and foam. There were still gaping holes in roofs and stairs with no destination as testament to the scale of the destruction. An argument broke out between the tricycle men and a woman with a towel on her head.
“They said the zhuangxiu (repair) people would be here today, so I waited and waited. But I have to work early tomorrow morning so I had to have a shower. Why do they come so late!” They ignored her at first. Continuing to place foam between the cracks of her new window and front door.

It was as if an earthquake had hit. I asked a shopkeeper what he thought about it all. “Meibanfa.” He shrugged. Nothing we can do, without even looking up at the people closing up the window in his wall and continuing to hurry me along to buy my vegetables. I wondered if staying put and continuing through any means was indeed an act of defiance. According to my neighbour, there is a new city in Daxing, big buildings ready for people to move into, they want people to go there. A cloud of mystery surrounded why these ‘renovations’ were happening. Many theories floated around, perhaps the hutongs in the city had now been reserved for another, more important purpose.
I heard some shopkeepers comparing lengths of time they had been there for. “One year? Not so bad. They were here seven.” I heard others complaining of the apparent contradiction in the government wanting them or not wanting them to make money. I heard a passerby comment to his friends as a justification for what was happening: “These people, they think they can do whatever they like.” I felt a sadness though and I explained this to another neighbour I came across on the way home walking his dog.
“Everyone is just sitting there, watching it happen.”
“They are used to it,” was his reply. “They know that they cannot do anything. If you try you will go to prison,” So, meibanfa, nothing we can do. Resilience or necessity, whichever way you look at it. Life must go on.

Two days later, I went back again. Perhaps it was a slight morbid fascination, an awe at how ultimate power could reduce solid structures to rubble in a snap of fingers. This time I was with my housemates, determined we would still support the market as usual. By this time they were well on their way with the larger scale demolition efforts, the second and third ‘illegally built’ floors. Policemen with riot gear guarded both entrances to the street. They waved a cheery hello to the most foreign-looking friend and tried to practice their English. We ignored them, a little wary and confused.
“Be careful!” They shouted after us.
There were men balancing precariously on roofs, knocking down the concrete they were standing on with a large hammer. Others drilled the holes to make it easier. They stopped as we weaved through the fallen debris. One of them standing on the roof of a destroyed electronics shop wearing a hard hat and a luminous yellow bib grinned wildly at our camera, posing with his oversized hammer in hand. We had heard them before, speaking a dialect I couldn’t pick up, outsiders perhaps, commissioned for this big task of the city’s re-modelling.

At the market we met some of the survivors after the storm. One woman whose shop was now no more had restarted her selling from a min-van, her bags of vegetables in piles within and stashed down a crack in between a nearby wall. Another had commissioned their nine-year old child to write a sign in English. They asked us how the grammar was. I commented at their very efficient system of organisation in their newly-halved space.
He smiled, “I found out one day that they were going to knock my wall down tomorrow, so I quickly bought these shelves, put them up and moved everything in in one day ready”. He said it with some pride.

Indeed, a friend who was living on the street next to the market had a similar rush to move out of her house. She had come back on Friday after work to a red sticker telling her her flat would be demolished. She assumed she would have a month or so notice, but after talking with the landlord, realised the demolition team were arriving on Monday. They spent Saturday looking for a house, signed a contract, then spent Sunday moving in. I asked her how she felt about this.
“I am lucky. I can do it. It’s uncomfortable, but nothing more. I feel sorry for my neighbours. The ones maybe they are trying to clean out of the city”. She said that she thought this was an effort to gentrify, push out all the people who would occupy this ‘extra’ space, not the Beijing locals, but the migrant workers, the poor. “My guess is they want to make it touristy, have the ‘right kind’ of people.” I heard this happened years before in the Qianmen hutongs, local residents ousted to make way for posh showrooms.

When I got home I spoke a bit to my housemate. Seeing this had made her feel very sad. She said she was so used to being around foreigners that perhaps she had a different perspective. But she said she was surprised at not being surprised. We talked about whether or not Chinese people are ‘good’ at accepting change.
“It’s not about being good at it. They also don’t want the change. But people also want peace, and they know they can’t do anything about it, it’s not a choice, it’s an order. If this happened in other countries, it wouldn’t be accepted. But here, from the inside, it’s normal, people are used to it. Not because of cultural difference but because of society.”
She had helped the friend move house in one day. “At first I was angry, but we had to do it so fast. Because we have to. Amazing job, but crazy. We could never have been so efficient in any other case. Power makes us react so fast.”

When they came for our street, one old neighbour locked himself in the house, the police came to physically remove him and then the builders bricked up his door. The old ladies on the street spoke of the waste, of one family investing all their savings into renovating their house, only for it to be turned back to what it was a year later. They talked a lot about the life of the laobaixing (the common people), powerless to the decisions made higher up.

I hear of the closing down parties happening in various parts of the city where hip hutong bars are being forced to close. They will probably reopen somewhere else though. That’s a privilege reserved to some. I wonder what happens to those who don’t have that option. Who lose more than just that. What happens after they pack up their lives in one tricycle and head out of the city?

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