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Endangered destinations 2011: Beijing’s hutongs

Wanderlust [July 20, 2011]

Peter Moore

The last remnants of ancient Beijing are under threat – again

Endangered Destinations 2011: Beijing's hutongs

What’s the problem?

Beijing’s hutongs, the old alleys of courtyard houses that have been part of the city’s fabric since 1279, are disappearing at an alarming rate due to rampant, unchecked development.

In 1949 Beijing had 3,050 hutongs. By 1990 there were 2,250; by 2004 just 1,300. Then the Olympics saw them bulldozed at an alarming rate, to make way for modern  skyscrapers.

An irreplaceable part of Chinese culture is being lost.

“The glory of Beijing was not individual buildings but derived from the whole architectural experience,” says Jasper Becker, author of City of Heavenly Tranquility: Beijing in the History of China. “Even though a few odd buildings, two dozen temples and some 30 hutongs have been preserved, they’re scattered around the skyscraper city now and make no impression at all.”

What’s the solution?

 

The Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Centre is an NGO campaigning to protect Chinese culture. It has already been successful in preventing the Galou area of old Beijing being demolished and redeveloped; the site will now become a ‘Time Museum’, which requires no further demolition and is more in tune with the surrounding hutongs.

He Shuzhong, founder of the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center, says that this move “shows the government has a better understanding of the value of old community culture and it accepts the voice from the public and non-government organisations.”

Jasper Becker is less optimistic.

“The regime does not pay attention to public opinion or even to the rules it agreed to under the Unesco World Heritage system,” he says. “A great many people tried to resist these changes from all walks of life but they were easily frightened or intimidated.”

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