Saturday, August 13, 2005

Hutongs: endangered urbanistic species - Beijing, China

(From my 2005 diary)

Chinese people have always loved, sometimes to the verge of obsession, everything that is large, tall, great, or better said grand. Beijing is the city where the proofs of this national passion find their roots in the history of the various imperial dynasties.

The long snakes of the Great Wall that crawl on the hills - spotted by the warm hues of the early autumn - are only one of the most famous examples.
Not less impressive is the Ming and Ching magnificence of the forbidden city. The compound houses a staircase that was obtained from a single marble block. The piece is so huge that in order to take it to the city it was decided to slide it on a path of ice a few kilometers long.
A Guiness world record statue of Buddha is nestled inside the Lama Temple. The 18-meter-tall sculpture was carved out of a single trunk of sandalwood.
Among its never ending collection of towers and ancient palaces then, the city hides a kilometer-long decorated wooden portico, a 63-tonne bell and then giant hourglass and drums to mark the rhythm of the hours, the days and the seasons that the emperor magnanimously bestowed on his subjects.

More recently, important contributions to the gigantism of Beijing have been provided by Mao Zedong, great leader but poor urbanist, with that web of wide roads running from north to south and from west to east around Tienanmen, the largest square in the world.

Talking about some of his sculptures on display in the center of Singapore, the Colombian artist Botero expressed his conviction that “Monumentality is not so much a question of sizes as it is of proportion”. And this is exactly the effect perceived by those who look at the portrait of Chairman Mao hanging above the Gate of the Heavenly Peace. Or by those who, arriving to the Western Railway Station, are bewildered by the sight of its facade, something in between an Arc de Triomphe and a Wall Gate of imperial era.

However, Beijing is not only a combination of gigantic elements continuously expanding. By letting one's thoughts wandering for a while, forgetting the city-map in the hotel, turning around a random corner and venturing into what might at first seem a dead-end street, it's possible to discover some untouched corners of the old city.

They are the hutongs, the Chinese version of the alleys of the European old towns. Narrow little streets, lined up with siheyuans, one-story houses with courtyards in front. Like snakes of an old video-game they wind at right angles, cutting across each other, widening in pockets full of small shops and suddenly narrowing to a bottleneck, maybe ending up leading in a 6-lane road, or crashing against a thick wall of concrete.

Along the hutongs the Pekingese give themselves up to those ancestral habits that in the big spaces of imperial, Maoist or post-modern concept can't find their habitat anymore. In a few dozen meters one can bump into small tables around which people play Chinese chess, cards and dominoes. Sometimes they crowd around a mysterious contest and start to wildly yell and bet. The hutongs are people-friendly corners where old and young people sit by themselves or in groups to smoke, read, noisily suck a bowl of noodle soup or just chat.

This maze of traditions even seems to be the last sanctuary for those who still like to use what we thought was the means of transport preferred by the Chinese, nearly vanished from the roads of the capital: the bicycle.

There are hutongs to suit everyone's taste. Who is not claustrophobic, gets bored in front of two Chinese who play chess and prefers the vibrations of a more commercial area, where it's possible to buy a watch or a jacket with just a few coins, can try to dive into the human river that flows along the alleys south of Qianmen Gate.

But these relics of an open-air museum of history and traditions, still so alive, unfortunately risk to become an endangered urbanistic species.

The heavy urbanization, the dizzy growth of the economy and the need for efficient and modern infrastructures are tearing apart these ancient areas of the city center.

The low houses and the courtyards are pitilessly demolished and replaced by residential compounds that can boast everything that the siheyuan don't have – bathrooms, heating systems, warm water, parking spaces – except, of course, their charm.

The government, under pressure of local and international organizations, has declared the hutongs protected architectural areas. Unfortunately though, the new development plans are like gold mines and there's always someone who is not too keen on letting the chance pass by.

The only hutongs that will probably have a future are those that will manage to secure it with blows of good profits. This is the reason why many of these houses are being cleaned up and reopened as restaurants, bars and souvenir shops, turning to the tourism to earn their right to continue to exist.

It's a solution to the problem that might not please many in the west, but we need to come to defense of tourism and the sophistication that it always brings along. We should not forget, in fact, that without tourism the Great Wall, the big boast of the country, would probably be just a heap of earth and stones – unrecognizable not only from the portholes of the Chinese spaceships but even from a few hundreds meters away.

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