Monday, November 13, 2006

Lesson 45: Beijing has "countless" hutongs

Somewhat of a sad irony, I thought, that while in the countdown to the 2008 Beijing Olympics more and more of Beijing's hutongs (alleyway with typical courtyard houses) fall victim to the merciless verdict of the character "拆" (to be demolished), new web-based chinese learning sites would exactly pick the quickly disappearing hutong as something that comes to mind in the context of teaching the new word "不计其数" (countless).

To be fair, I have not an exact idea on the size of destruction taking place. As I have never been living in Beijing myself, I can in no way accurately relate the current situation to how it was, say, 20 years ago, when I was thriving in the city of the "里弄" (lilong), Shanghai. But if this article and photo reportage by Sean Gallagher is any indication, it must be pretty devastating:

According to UNESCO, in the past three years a third of the 62km squared area that makes up the central part of the old city has now been destroyed. This has displaced close to 580,000 people – one and a half times the total population of Washington D.C.

There's the arguments pro and contra, for a lot of these hutongs are indeed rife with dilapidated dwellings which are basically screaming for a sledgehammer to help them end their torment. But more important even than the architectural value may be the social fabric that these alleyways have woven throughout the centuries they have been in existence and which is now being ripped to shreds by moving out the original residents to the high rise buildings in the outskirts of Beijing.

It is too early to judge, I believe, the social implications this will have on the new Beijing as it is emerging. If the Chinese have proven anything to this day, it is definitely their resilience and ability to bounce back even under harsh conditions. However, what is sure is that the high rises can not replace the cosy and protective atmosphere of the hutongs. In that respect, I feel a lot of sympathy for this site, that tries to capture the spirit of the hutong society through the eyes of it's residents:

Hutong to Highrise is dedicated to extensively documenting the disappearing hutong communities of old Beijing. Hutong to Highrise (H2H) visits Hutongs, interviews the residents and dispenses cameras so that residents may photograph what they deem important in their daily lives. H2H is slowly building a photographic archive of Beijing's rich Hutong culture, one supplemented with the stories, and insights of Hutong residents.

Like the Japanese ukiyo-e prints, these are truly "images of the floating life" and life may be floating faster than one would like.

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