Structural revolution

My first winter in the heart of old Beijing, ice formed inside my windows every night. I had moved into a courtyard in a neighbourhood dating back seven centuries, when the city became China’s imperial capital, and the cold seemed a minor inconvenience.

For the vast majority of its 20m inhabitants, Beijing’s landscape consists of broad highways and hulking apartment blocks. The lane I have now lived in for nearly five years is too narrow for cars and it opens on to a latticework of single-storey homes with sloping tiled roofs.

My courtyard sits in the shadow of the Drum Tower, a stout red building where a drum sounded to mark the hours until the early 1900s.

On one side, my neighbour is a taxi driver who raises pigeons as a pastime, attaching wooden pipettes to their feet so they whistle when flying overhead. On the other side is a music teacher whose warbling bamboo flute forms the soundtrack for my mornings.

In a city beset by traffic jams and the anomie of high-rise living, my courtyard used to be a world apart, 700 sq ft of respite from the urban grind. Today, it is on the edge of a battleground. At stake is the question of how Beijing should preserve its history.

The district government has decided to push out the residents from the lanes next to the Drum Tower and rebuild them as they might have appeared when Qing emperors ruled China in the 18th century. The lanes, or hutongs, are ancient but the homes within them are a cross-section of Beijing’s past, some traceable to imperial times, some just a few decades old.

Wrecking balls have already levelled two-thirds of the city’s 3,000 hutongs to make space for office towers and apartment complexes. The Drum Tower anchors one of the largest clusters of hutongs still standing.

Three years ago, the government tried to redevelop the area, unveiling plans to transform its 30 acres into Beijing Time Cultural City, which was to feature an underground shopping mall, a timekeeping museum and luxury courtyard homes. The project, with a reported budget of Rmb400m ($64m), sparked an outcry from local residents and heritage groups. The city quietly dropped its plans, an example of how Chinese officials can be responsive to – and fearful of – organised opposition.

But in the final days of 2012, small white eviction notices were pasted to the grey brick walls of the hutongs near mine. Redevelopment of the Drum Tower neighbourhood was back on the agenda.

The government has learnt lessons from its previous failure. It has set its sights lower, aiming only to clear out the hutongs immediately abutting the Drum Tower and its stone sister, the Bell Tower. It has chosen a more innocuous name, calling it a “restoration and renovation” project. State-run media have also been deployed, declaring that homes slated for demolition are of “no historical value”.

My courtyard is one such place – of no historical value in official eyes. That’s not to say it is without history.

I live in Xijiaogan Hutong, or West Sedan Pole Lane, a short cul-de-sac that got its name because it and the parallel alley, East Sedan Pole Lane, together resembled the poles used to hoist sedan chairs, the vehicle of the wealthy in imperial China.

Between the two lanes sat the sedan chair: in this case a tiny temple, dedicated to the earth god. The earth god used to be ubiquitous in China, the deity that ordinary people turned to when praying for their crops, offering thanks for a baby or burying the dead.

In West Sedan Pole Lane, the earth god met a cruel fate during the cultural revolution, the decade of madness unleashed by Mao from 1966-1976. Local residents smashed the temple’s statues and squatters moved into its three small rooms, where they remain to this day.

Teacher Jin, the flautist who lives next door, told me that in the spasm of violence, one boy cut open the collection box, hoping to steal coins from it. The knife snapped back and cut the boy above his eye. Mr Han at the end of the lane, a chef who mostly keeps to himself, still bears a scar.

It is not the only instance of my hutong meting out harsh justice. The year before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the government gave money to residents to spruce up their homes – mainly to cover their roofs with classic-looking tiles – to ensure the city impressed foreign visitors.

Lao Hei, or Old Blackie (a nickname his parents gave him because of his unusually white complexion), seized the opportunity. He carved off 50 sq ft from West Sedan Pole Lane for his family home. His neighbours were outraged but appeals to authorities fell on deaf ears. When the building inspectors finally came, it was too late, his extension was complete.

He did not enjoy it for long. In 2009, aged 49, Old Blackie collapsed from a heart attack. My neighbours did not rejoice at his death but they shook their heads knowingly. The hutong had exacted its revenge.

Refurbished courtyard homes are often exquisite – with fish ponds, conservatories and saunas – but expensive in the extreme. Rents reach Rmb50,000 a month, 10 times Beijing’s average monthly wage. Unrenovated homes are affordable but basic. They are equipped with minimal heating and lack indoor plumbing – residents use the public toilets that are scattered throughout the hutongs.

My home, which I moved into in 2008, fell into the second category. It consisted of four rooms with concrete floors and little else for Rmb2,500 ($400) a month. It had one big selling point: a landlord who was willing to cover renovation costs so long as I agreed to a higher rent and a long-term lease. The only challenge was persuading him that it did not make sense to combine the toilet and the kitchen in a single room. He insisted it would make the plumbing much simpler. Eventually, he relented.

For two weeks, we scoured the city for building materials. In Beijing’s eastern suburbs was Lighting City, a three-storey mall with dozens of stores selling light fixtures. Next to it was the door market, an emporium of wooden doors, heavy metal doors, sliding glass doors – any door, I discovered, apart from plain white ones.

My landlord hired a construction crew of five men from Henan, a poor central province. They worked without break for 40 days to paint the walls, lay floorboards, reinforce the roof and, most importantly, install a toilet and a shower. I would have been content with a slower construction pace but the crew had other jobs to get to. Apart from a leak in the bathroom when Beijing suffered a massive rainstorm last summer, their work has stood the test of time. As for my frigid first winter, I later added more heaters and double-paned windows, and the temperature inside duly rose.

Foreigners who move into hutongs can meet with hostility, sometimes for good reason. One friend who threw a few too many parties soon found that his neighbours controlled his water supply. Whenever he was too loud, his water was shut off.

I live by two rules. The first is to keep quiet – no late-night parties. The second, I quickly realised, is to stay on the good side of the alpha male of the hutong, a grizzled retired soldier. He stands like a sentry outside his door, inspecting whoever passes by. I call him shushu, or uncle, as a term of respect and always make time to chat.

Beijing’s hutongs are not frozen in time. At the mouth of West Sedan Pole Lane, a little shop opened three years ago selling homemade yoghurt and cheesecake, and it has become a popular hang-out for young couples on dates. In the bigger alleys around the Drum Tower, the changes have been more dramatic. Boutique hotels, gentlemen’s clubs, cocktail bars and cafés, microbrew pubs, countless restaurants and an alternative music scene have all taken root.

This gentrification is not cultural preservation in the purest sense of leaving things untouched but nor is it wholesale demolition and reconstruction. It is building on the framework of the hutongs that has existed for centuries, adding one more layer of sediment to their history.

Those living next to the Drum Tower were supposed to have been evicted by February 24. Only a handful have left. Some just want more money – compensation is currently set at Rmb44,000 per sq m, about half the market rate. Police officers have been knocking on doors on a daily basis to remind people their time is up. Angry residents have had shouting and shoving matches with them. Many say they will fight to stay.

My courtyard sits just outside the area slated for destruction and will escape the sledgehammers this time. But if the government does succeed in redeveloping the Drum Tower, West Sedan Pole Lane will be next in line to go.

Simon Rabinovitch is the FT’s Beijing correspondent

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