Beijing's Vanishing Alleyways

Rob Gifford reviews Michael Meyer's new book "The Last Days of Old Beijing," and how it brings to life a rapidly vanishing element of the Chinese city: the hutong, or alleyways, which are being swiftly demolished and redeveloped.

"Beijing as we know it today-including its famous hutong, or alleyways-was initially built by Kublai Khan, the great Mongol emperor, in the 13th century. There were richer hutong neighborhoods and poorer ones, but most were made up of courtyard houses, walled and enclosed, the architecture mirroring the inward-looking nature of Chinese civilization. Many of the narrow lanes were arranged in grids, running from east to west, and, though the houses were enclosed, they formed close-knit communities. Children played out in the lanes, and the shouts of vendors selling their wares echoed off the crumbling brick walls along the alley. Life for centuries in Beijing was lived very close to the ground.

Slowly, reluctantly, the city, like the country, began to change as it searched for a new, modern identity. In the early 20th century, railroads, telegraph lines, tarmac roads, and street lighting began to appear. But the hutong remained, largely untouched even through the Japanese occupation of the 1930s.

It is only now, in the last 10 years...that the Beijing government has set about destroying the city's famous lanes. Their central location has made them prime real estate, and many have been demolished to make way for shiny new office buildings and apartment blocks for the emergent middle classes. The lanes that survived so much else could not survive the assault of the market. There were 7,000 hutong in 1949; now there are fewer than 1,300."

Full Story: The Vanishing City


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