Debates rage on over future of hutong

By Wang Zhuoqiong (China Daily)
Updated: 2007-06-12 06:58

There has been much debate over the demolition of Beijing's ancient alleys and the need to preserve the city's cultural heritage.

Much press coverage was given to the controversial decision to demolish houses at Dongsi Batiao, an ancient alley of courtyard homes in downtown Beijing, a plan which was subsequently halted.

A China Daily survey of 594 people held last week found almost 52 percent were against the demolition, while 29 percent were in favor of it.

The Dongsi Batiao, (which translates as the eighth hutong in the Dongsi area), was first built about 700 years ago during the Ming Dynasty (1271-1368).

It is listed as one of the capital's 25 protected historical sites and was home to renowned artists such as opera singer-cum-female impersonator Mei Lanfang.

One of those surveyed, a man called Heritage Lover, expressed his concern over the rapid demise of the city's hutong - traditional networks of small lanes and courtyards - as Beijing modernizes.

"Hutong are the soul of Beijing, they must be preserved," he said. "Without them, there is no more Beijing."

Another respondent, Dr Ross Grainger, agreed, saying hutong add to Beijing's appeal and must be saved.

"Beijing's few remaining hutong give foreigners a slice of community life in Beijing. As time goes on you will find the appeal of Beijing's hutong will only increase," he said.

However, despite the calls from the conservationists, the historic hutong are disappearing fast. In 1949, there were more than 3,000 such lanes in the city. By 2003, that number had fallen to 1,600, according to the Beijing municiple commission of urban planning.

While acknowledging the need to save the hutong, many respondents wanted more attention to be paid to the living conditions of the residents.

Chenchen said: "Their living conditions are not good. They have little space, poor access to transport, a dirty environment and few modern facilities.

"Hutong residents, as contributors to the economic boom, deserve to benefit from it.

"By demolishing these obsolete houses, they can be given a better life," he said.

Questions were also raised regarding the city's planning departments, after the media reported conflicts between construction authorities and cultural bureaux over the demolition.

A man named Jerry said the project showed how poor the initial planning had been.

He suggested there should be more discussion before action is taken.

"Look before you leap, and plan well before starting a project," he said.

Some of those polled put the blame on the developers.

A man called Give-heritage-a-chance pondered what Beijing would be like if left in the hands of developers.

"They would demolish all one-story houses and build modern high-rises. Then Beijing would be no different to Manhattan," he said.

(China Daily 06/12/2007 page5)

Top China News  
Today's Top News  
Most Commented/Read Stories in 48 Hours