Bulldozers march on Peking's old courtyards

A unique feature of the city is under threat, writes Teresa Poole

Peking - As one of the Empress dowager Cixi's favourite eunuchs, Li Lianying lived in comparative style in his traditional courtyard residence near Houhai lake, north of Peking's Forbidden City. The quadrangle was laid out according to established form: a single doorway led off the hutong, or alleyway, and through to a rectangular courtyard overlooked by single-storey rooms.

Then, as now, the distinctively shaped roofs had grey tiles and the pillars and window-frames were painted red. At that time, Li and his relatives would have had the quadrangle to themselves; now, 14 families are crammed in. "Everybody knows each other," said one resident, Mrs Yan.

Away from the city's new office blocks and shopping centres, the reality of everyday life for many Pekingers is still focused on the hutongs. But not, perhaps, for much longer. Old Peking is fast disappearing as bulldozers move in. Conservationists are alarmed at the apparent lack of concern about which hutong districts should be protected and residents are often dismayed at the prospect of being forcibly moved to more expensive apartment blocks in distant suburbs. Nor is the redevelopment going to solve the housing shortage: although a construction boom has created a glut of property, it is far too pricey for the average family.

In many hutongs, conditions are spartan and even squalid. Old Mrs Liu has lived in her traditional courtyard in the west of the city for 47 years. There is no heating apart from a coal stove, the only water is from a tap in the yard shared with several families, and it is a five- minute walk to the nearest (public) toilet. Yet as bulldozers from the nearby development of Peking's "Financial Street" work their way in her direction, Mrs Liu is unenthusiastic about being rehoused. "I have spent most of my life here. Everything seems so familiar to me. I simply don't know what life will be like for me when I can't see the red wooden window frames and the clay bricks and the trees here." There are practical objections as well: Mrs Liu's son works at the Capital Iron and Steel Works, west of the city, but the government plans to rehouse them two hours' drive away on the other side of town.

A hundred years ago Mrs Liu's hutong probably housed merchants and tradesmen. The area is of less historic interest than the courtyard houses in the Yan family neighbourhood, once the residences of imperial retainers and aristocrats. During the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), the style of a courtyard's gate indicated the rank and social status of the owner, and beautiful stone and brick carvings can be found along the hutongs. Life was regimented: the household head lived in the rooms along the north side of his quadrangle, to benefit from the sun. His wife's bedroom was at the east end of his quarters; his concubine slept to the west.

A few of the most attractive courtyards have been renovated by mainland developers and are on the market at sky-high prices. A Hong Kong property agent said he had been quoted asking prices of pounds 450,000 to pounds 2.5m. But many quadrangles are too run-down to be worth restoring, or sit on land which now has prime high-rise development potential.

Xu Yong, who has produced a photographic record of some of Peking's historic hutongs, estimates a quarter of the city's courtyard housing has been demolished. "Even now the city has no clear measures to preserve the hutongs." Some 24 preservation areas were in theory designated in 1990, but the Cultural Relics Bureau has in practice been unable to stop development projects approved by more powerful departments.

Everyone accepts that many hutongs will not survive, because an upwardly mobile population demands facilities such as bathrooms and central heating. So Mr Xu is lobbying for effective preservation orders on selected neighbourhoods. These could be renovated and some used as tourist sites and hotels, he suggests, to give future generations a glimpse of traditional Peking life.

The Yan family, who pay only pounds 1.40 a month in rent to the city government, just want to stay put. Mrs Yan, her husband, who works in a radio-components factory, and their two adult daughters share one large room and an annexe. The hutong has been their home for 26 years and, as far as Mrs Yan is concerned, she has few wants. "We have installed a cold- water tap and already have a 1,700 yuan [pounds 130] washing machine," she said. "We would like a large colour television and also a bigger refrigerator. But since we've been told this area may be pulled down, we will wait a few years before buying anything, in case we have to move."

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Taste the difference: Nell Frizzell tucks into a fry-up in Jesse's cafe in east London
food + drinkHow a bike accident left one woman living in a distorted world in which spices smell of old socks and muesli tastes like pork fat
Sport
Luke Shaw’s performance in the derby will be key to how his Manchester United side get on
footballIt's not a game to lose, writes Paul Scholes
Arts and Entertainment
Don’t send in the clowns: masks and make-up conceal true facial expressions, thwarting our instinct to read people’s minds through their faces, as seen in ‘It’
filmThis Halloween, we ask what makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?
News
peopleFarage challenges 'liberally biased' comedians to 'call him a narcissist'
Arts and Entertainment
Liam and Zayn of One Direction play with a chimpanzee on the set of their new video for 'Steal My Girl'
music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Cover teachers needed - Hull and Grimsby

Negotiable: Randstad Education Hull: Secondary Teachers of all subjects requir...

Chemistry Teacher - Jan 2015

Negotiable: Randstad Education Hull: We are currently looking to recruit a Che...

Special Needs Teachers Required - Nottingham

£110 - £145 per day: Randstad Education Nottingham: Randstad Education are rec...

Special Needs Teachers required - Derby

£110 - £145 per day: Randstad Education Nottingham: Randstad Education are rec...

Day In a Page

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes