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Dilemmas of the Hutong Residents: The Homes They Lost

Beijing’s hutong residents had participated and witnessed the glorious past of the Old City, but unfortunately, most of them are now being reallocated to the suburban areas (due to the real estate development in the Old City). Some of them did not want to give in to threats or bribes, and they decided to fight for their rights and interests. Their deep love for their homes and their ceaseless efforts to preserve the Old City has greatly enriched the meaning of its local cultural heritage.

The stories of these protestors have constituted a very important part of the Chinese history of modernization. A thorough study and analysis of these stories will be helpful for us to understand this great social transformation we are experiencing, re-evaluate the essence of Chinese culture, and nurture the social responsibility of our citizens. With these thoughts in mind, Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center (CHP) organized a lecture called Residents of Old Beijing, and its Preservation on September 7th, inviting a hutong resident to introduce her bitter protest experience. The purpose of this lecture is to inspire and encourage other protestors and also connect the researchers as well as preservationists with the residents, who are the “real heroes”.

The path of these protesters is challenging, and process of organizing this lecture was not easy either. CHP had planned to invite two speakers, two Ma Dajies – Ma Xiulan and Ma Xiuming, who are not related at all: one of them from Xianyukou, the other from Beiheyan. They have both tried very hard to protect their own interest on their private courtyard property. But due to unforeseeable reasons, Ma Xiulan could not come to share her experiences with us. CHP wishes everything is well with her and her family.

Ma Xiuming Dajie was born in 1937, and her home was in a small courtyard house on the west side of the Beiheyan Dajie (NE corner of the former Imperial City). Beiheyan, literally means “the north section of river bank”, once was part of the river course of the Yuhe River. Right behind Ma Xiuming’s courtyard, there was a very famous neighbor, Mr. Cheng Yanqiu, a renowned Peking Opera performing artist (in the 1930’s). When Ma Xiuming was little, Yuhe River was still beautiful. Later, it became a garbage dump. Then a road replaced the river, and the river disappeared forever. In 1955, Ma Xiuming was accepted by the famous Peking University. Not long before she went to university, Ma Xiuming’s mom purchased this courtyard, and obtained a house and land property certificate. This certificate had a government seal, as well as details on the number of rooms, size of the property, location, and serial number of the land lot. Before the Cultural Revolution, although there were a number of other political movements which had affected their ownership, they maintained the courtyard residence relatively well, same with the rest part of the Imperials City.

In 1966, the Cultural Revolution started. One day in August that year, like many others, Ma Xiuming found a poster on her courtyard door, requesting them to turn in the house and land property ownership certificate, as one of the goals of the Cultural Revolution was to eliminate the private property ownership. If they refused to turn in voluntarily, the Red Guards would do it with force. Ma Xiuming’s family did not dare to ignore this order, but they were still kicked out of their own home by the local Red Guards, and lost all their belongings as well, including all their clothing.

The only thing Ma Xiuming felt lucky was that she kept a receipt, saying “the property was received”, and this receipt was issued by the housing department of the local government. On this receipt, the types of certificates, as well as the details of other documents received by the local government were all clearly listed. Ma Xiuming kept this receipt in a most safe place until today, as she believed that this would be the only evidence which showed that they once owned this courtyard, should there be a chance that they regain the ownership of the house one day.

Now that their own home had been “received” by the government, where should the Ma family live? Back then, Ma Xiuming worked as a technician in a factory, and she would have slept on the office desk after her colleagues went home. Later when she got married, she and her husband shared a communal dormitory with others. If their roommates spent the night elsewhere, then they would be able to enjoy a peaceful evening together. Ma Xiuming said, “I would have slept in any empty caves by the road side if there was one back then.”

So what happened to the Ma Xiuming’s home at the NE corner of the former Imperial City? After Ma family were moved out, this courtyard became home to a few families from “good background”. When they moved in, they built additional living spaces in the yard, and removed the private toilet, as well as the trees, and now “the entire courtyard looked completely different, and many old trees inside and outside the courtyard were all cut down, so it looked more like a slum, rather than a decent courtyard home,” said Ma Xiuming.

Finally in 1984, after the Ma family had painfully waited for 18 years, the housing department informed Ma Xiuming to go and get a new house property ownership certificate, reclaiming their courtyard home. But they had been asked to pay for RMB768, which was the balance of the house reparation cost by the government during those years, deducting the rent paid by the tenant families. If they did not pay this balance, then they would not be able to reclaim the house. This amount of money was a fortune by then, considering the normal income of most people in early 1980’s. It was even more unfair as the Ma family knew that they would still not be able to move back to this courtyard since those tenants wouldn’t be willing to either move out of the place, or to pay the rent to the Ma family.

Ma Xiuming said that she and her two younger sisters hesitated, as it meant that they would have to borrow a lot of money, as well as to take over the responsibility of renovating these houses for the safety of the “occupants”, even though the Ma family still could not move back. “But my mother passed away during the Cultural Revolution, and if we could not take back this courtyard my mother bought, I couldn’t forgive myself. I would rather let these people staying there for free, and in exchange, I could retrieve our property ownership,” Ma Xiuming said with great certainty. Things developed as she had predicted: since she regained the title of this property, the tenants never paid her rent, and at the same time, no one agreed to move away. “The government did nothing to interfere, and I dared not to bother either,” Ma Xiuming said.

After they have gathered RMB768, Ma Xiuming and two of her younger sisters got the courtyard house property certificate.

Since 1990’s, waves of commercial real estate developments started in the old city of Beijing, and the reason seems to be a very noble one, which is “to improve the quality of the dangerous houses”. The neighborhood where Ma Xiuming’s family property located was also supposed to be developed, and the hutong courtyard houses of the entire neighborhood would be replaced with a commercial apartment project call Yujing Garden Apartments. By that time, a news report about this project once appeared on the front page of the Beijing Daily, with the following description: A state-owned developer (东城区住宅建设开发公司) and a Hong Kong developer (香港华英国际发展有限公司) signed an agreement, with a total committed investment of USD38.67 million, building a commercial high-end service apartment project, together with some social housing for the local residents. The total size of the land is about 1.72 hectare, with over 30,000 square meters of floor space. Most of the apartments will be 2-3 floor villas, with private garden space and a garage. Among the public service facilities, there are grocery stores, a clubhouse, a gym, a swimming pool and an underground car park.

Ma Xiuming studied the Imperial City Conservation Plan in great detail. She was angered, “how can this project be a dangerous house improvement project? How can they build apartment high-rise buildings at this location? This neighborhood is part of the Imperial City Preservation Area, with a building height limit of six meters only. This is obviously an illegal project.” From the day she learned about this project, Ma Xiuming started to work with experts and some congress representatives to stop it. Among the experts Ma Xiuming had worked with, we are surprised to find the well-known names like Hou Renzhi and Zhang Kaiji, both leading professors on history and architecture of the city of Beijing.

Yet in summer 1992, despite all the protests, the demolition notice was still posted, requesting the local residents to make way for this commercial project. In August the same year, the notice posted by the local sub-district government stated the deadline for moving away is 31 August. “Those people who occupied our home took all the compensation and moved away, but no one told me anything, let alone any compensation. By 13 August, our home had been flattened,” Ma Xiuming said.

Since 13 August, 1992, more than 20 years passed, and the only thing that bothers Ma Xiuming is the courtyard at the NE corner of the Imperial City, the courtyard her mom bought. This courtyard is her home, and it shouldn’t be demolished like this. In fact, the ownership of that piece of land also belongs to the Ma family, and that has been recognized by the Beijing Municipal People’s Government since an ownership certificate was once issued. The most important thing is that this neighborhood is within the Imperial City Preservation Area, and can’t be used for building high-rise houses. What Ma Xiuming had done deserves to be admired, but we also felt sorry for her.

Ma Xiuming had refused to accept a replacement apartment anywhere else, and she just need the home in her dream. After their old courtyard was demolished, she had tried to appeal for law interference. The Legal Daily supported her and considered her action as a way of protecting her own legal rights, and hope that the developer could have made up their own mistakes. The developer replied to the Legal Daily, indicating that they could arrange an apartment elsewhere, and provide monetary compensation, but this was refused by Ma Xiuming. This happened again not just once later.

Ma Xiuming had fully applied all the legal rights she was entitled according to Chinese law, and she would like to become the real owner of her home and land. In 2008, she took her house ownership certificate to ask for land ownership registration at the government land management department. After examining all the materials she provided, the government land management department issued her a “receipt”. Only when the land management officials went for site survey, they found that the house had been demolished. So the absurd thing is that a legally owned real estate property was illegally demolished, but the land management department was “inconvenient” to issue the owner any land ownership certificate. Failed to obtain the land ownership certificate, Ma Xiuming was not discouraged, and she then started to use the property ownership certificate to apply for construction permit, so she could rebuild her property. Since 2009, Ma Xiuming hired a construction team, and started to identify the location of her own courtyard house, and finally in May 2011, she managed to build a simple wood board structure on the original site. But it is a pity that this did not develop any further, as she was forced out of the structure in the midnight of 21 May, 2011, and the structure was demolished again. The hope of having her old courtyard rebuilt seems vanished.

Ma Xiuming had fully applied the rules and regulations as outlined in the Imperial City Conservation Plan, and she did not allow any high-rise to be built on her land. Ma Xiuming was not professional preservationist, but she was more familiar with the regulations than many professionals, although she was only a physics teacher. She has been a regular guest of the Beijing Urban Planning Commission, and she has known the other officials and experts very well. All the new movements or policies of the government are very well known to her. No preservation or demolition news on the local newspaper or on the Internet is not on her radar. No dialogue or discussion with the management officials will intimidate her. The unfortunate Ma Xiuming was fortunate to have the sympathy and support of the Beijing Urban Planning Commission, a government agency with strong influence and profound understanding on the significance of the preservation of the Imperial City.  Until today, the ruin is still a ruin. There is a short wall built along the street, blocking pass-bys’ eyesight from seeing this deserted land in the heart of old Beijing. In order to help Ma Xiuming preparing all the materials that can be used for this lecture, CHP helped her to take photographs on site in early September. An old man there sighed and said, “what a waste of land, nobody used it for over 20 years.” In order to prevent the development of this area into another high-rise concrete forest, Ma Xiuming has ceaselessly protested for more than 20 years. The Beijing Urban Planning Commission has perhaps also “contributed” a lot, and the happiness and sadness of this process is only known to themselves.

Ma Xiuming is already in her early 70’s, and perhaps she would not be able to protest for another 20 years. During the lecture, Ma Dajie did not even take a break, or seek for any help, and she continued for more than two hours. Her story is a very touching story, and means a lot for China, as we are building a society ruled by law, as we are preserving our historical cities by law. This is a very meaningful lecture, thus we thank Ma Dajie, and we wish her a good luck. We hope it won’t be any longer for her road of protests.

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