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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."