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Reinventing Beijing

Tourists gather in the Forbidden City, which is now being extensively restored.
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Photo: Dean Kaufman

I see how a hutong can be preserved and upgraded when I visit another area, north of Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, near the 18th-century Bell Tower, where pedicabs ferry tourists on forays around the neighborhood. I am on foot, guided by Hu Xinyu, managing director of the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center.

We climb the tower to get a panoramic view of the labyrinthine passageways. Back at street level, Hu points out a pair of stone stubs astride the entryway to one of the many courtyard houses, explaining that these are remnants of carved lion heads vandalized in the Cultural Revolution. As a peddler cycles slowly past us, his wicker baskets full of persimmons and tangerines, we peer into courtyards at heaps of coal bricks still used for heat. Cabbage and scallions hang out to dry in the brisk winter air. Hu suggests stopping in at the local mah-jongg parlor, where amid the click-clack of gaming tiles, a friendly player takes us aside to show off an assortment of pet crickets kept in tiny jars.

We pass by several blackboards affixed to façades, each covered with colorful, meticulous chalk calligraphy that explains the origins of the Olympic movement to area residents. Nearby, Nanlouguxiang Street is one of the few hutong passageways to become almost fully gentrified—it’s now lined with bars and restaurants aimed primarily at Western travelers. In the narrow lanes spilling off to the sides there are many grand courtyard houses undergoing comprehensive restoration, and two have already become hotels.

Wealthy foreigners like media mogul Rupert Murdoch and the president of Airbus China are snapping up courtyard buildings of this type; high-end renovations are stoking fears that surviving hutong will become enclaves for the very rich or be degraded into tourist-only zones devoid of the close-knit communal life that made them so distinctive. "People long for what is being swept away physically," Julius Song, a retired professor of sociology, says. "But even more there is longing for the intimate feeling of people who lived there for generations. They shared so much."

In China’s booming economy, the market for expensive living quarters is white-hot. While old courtyard houses are being razed, new high-rise developments are going up all over town. Some of the most architecturally distinctive have names like SoHo and MOMA, contrived to evoke Manhattan glamour in the minds of potential buyers. I visited the showroom for an eight-tower complex drawn up by American architect Steven Holl, billed as an environmentally path-breaking design featuring geothermal heating and cooling. "People are getting rich overnight, and they want to live in a very good apartment," Jiang Peng, deputy manager of the project, says as we walk through a model apartment designed to attract what the Chinese call golden-­collar workers.

During this fevered spate of private-sector development, Chinese state authorities are overseeing construction for the 2008 Olympics and the restoration of key landmarks like the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, and the Temple of Heaven. The Olympic deadline is heavily influencing both the preservation of old buildings and the construction of new ones. The city government has ordained that all new structures must be finished by the end of 2007, well before the Games begin.

The huge new stadium is nearing completion ahead of time, as is the so-called Water Cube, a stunning new facility where the swimming competitions will be held. Even the International Olympic Committee, which agonized about the snail’s pace of Athens’ preparation for the 2004 games, has urged the Chinese to slow down, for fear the finished venues will sit empty for too long. The main stadium by Herzog and de Meuron already stands as a striking addition to the skyline, with its steel and concrete ribbing arrayed like a huge bird’s nest, or delicate basket-weaving writ large.

Lest the major monuments of China’s glorious past be overshadowed by these contemporary landmarks, Deputy Prime Minister Li Lanqing issued a call three years ago for the Forbidden City to be thoroughly restored. "The ideas of party members are influencing the palace museum, but they are not educated in these matters," says a Beijing conservation specialist who asked not to be named. Fang Zhiyuan, a professor at the China Academy of Arts who is descended from the Qing imperial line, voices similar criticism of the overall official approach to preservation. "The government doesn’t consider historical value—decisions are made by political need," he says. "Historic sites are being sectioned off for commercial purposes. Many people in Beijing are upset about this."

Unesco recently issued a statement expressing concern that restoration works at the palace and other major sites were being carried out "in a hasty manner" and without "clearly formulated principles." When I raise these objections with the deputy director of the Palace Museum, Jin Hongkui, he responds, "The renovation being carried out right now is based upon careful study and discussions, rather than catering to the comment of a leader."

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