BEIJING — My courtyard home in the heart of old Beijing has a view of the Drum Tower, which for centuries helped citizens keep track of the time.
The tower still rolls its drums daily for tourists. But over the past few weeks a different rumbling could be heard in the public square where it stands: the sound of sledgehammers knocking down surrounding buildings.
For years, the government has proposed leveling the zone around the Drum Tower and the neighboring Bell Tower, known in Chinese as Gulou and Zhonglou, respectively. In 2010, local media reported that except for the two towers, the area, a maze of snaking hutong alleyways and ramshackle courtyard homes, would be demolished to make way for a new “Beijing Time Cultural City” and underground mall.
That did not come to pass. But in late 2012, the government posted new notices ordering local businesses and residents to vacate by Feb. 24. My home, which is one hutong down from the square, will be spared, but dozens are slated for destruction. Many residents have already left; those who have stayed are demanding more compensation.
The government’s latest plan is to restore the square to its original appearance, as laid out on 18th-century Qing Dynasty maps. The neighborhood is currently a mishmash of architectural eras: While some of the hutongs themselves date back to the 13th century, many of the buildings are only a few decades old.
More likely, the government’s objective is commercial. Gulou, as this neighborhood also is called, is prime real estate, located smack in the center of China’s capital. After its residents leave, the authorities will be able to reclaim the land and sell it or rent it out for vast profits. They are also hoping to generate more tourism. By widening the narrow roads around the square, developers can increase the number of vehicles — crucially, tour buses — passing through.
A few of my neighbors are happy to see this happen. It is about time, they say, that this scruffy slum is torn down. As many as nine families sometimes live around a single courtyard, often without heating or plumbing. For them, historic preservation is a luxury and the government’s compensation offer for vacating — about $660 per square foot and a state-provided apartment on the city’s outskirts — is appealing.
But not for Liu Jinmin. Liu, a retired martial artist in his late 50s, was born in a hutong near Gulou. He now lives in another one with a dramatic view of the stone Bell Tower, where he hosts tourist groups for lunch. In exchange for moving out, Liu has been offered a high-rise apartment an hour and a half away by bus, beyond the Fourth Ring Road — far from the hospital his elderly father visits, the sports school his sons attend and the spot, right outside his door, where his friends gather to play mahjong.
Liu believes that destroying the hutongs means destroying the fabric of old Beijing life. “Every household has its stories. Once ordinary people leave, the culture that goes with them will leave,” he told me a couple of weeks ago. Liu isn’t going anywhere: He said he had spent two months in prison for protesting the destruction of his previous courtyard home. (It was torn down anyway.)
Bulldozing in Gulou has been underway in earnest over the past few weeks. On a recent Wednesday afternoon, I found my favorite café locked up, its interior gutted. The fruit store had become a heap of bricks. Nearby, five policemen were knocking on doors, peering into darkened windows and trying to cajole inhabitants who had not yet left into evacuating.
Gulou is indeed dilapidated — partly because the constant threat of the bulldozer has given residents and shop owners little incentive to invest in its upkeep. But in other hutongs nearby, where razing is less imminent, funky cafés have opened up, along with cocktail bars, restaurants and boutique hotels. The area is gentrifying, and though that, too, has its downside — like rising rents that push out locals — the changes have been piecemeal, and the neighborhood retains its charms while attracting visitors.
That’s a much better approach than the top-down development by the government, with its Disneyland-like clusters of reproduced historical streets. Qianmen Street, once a famous shopping area, was reopened in 2008 after being demolished. It now boasts faux late Qing Dynasty facades, a concrete tree and a fake tram. Hutongs just down the road from Gulou were recently knocked down and rebuilt to accommodate shops like KFC and Costa Coffee.
If the city is careful to preserve its most famous landmarks, like the Drum Tower and the Forbidden City, it doesn’t look upon the chaotic life of its alleyways as valuable heritage. Catering to domestic tourists means promoting shiny fakery over shabby authenticity.
In a historical neighborhood called Dashilar, near Tiananmen Square, the city government is experimenting with other ways of catalyzing development. In Gulou, as in much of old Beijing, it’s too late for that. Two-thirds of the capital’s 3,000 hutongs have already been demolished. Yet with the right government policies, it could have been a different story.
Photograph: Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore