Over a few months ago in mid November, it snowed for the first time in Beijing this year. That morning, when I looked out of my window I realised two things: The first was that it had already been much colder this winter compared to 2010. As I only have that winter to use as comparison, it had left me wondering why people warned me before leaving about Beijing winters, and whether or not Chinese people just “don’t do so good” outside of their ideal temperature comfort zones… (Since then I’ve had to revise my opinion on the hardiness of Beijingers and am seriously considering acquiring one of those full-length puffer jackets that make you look like the giant Michelin man let loose at a “shiny material sale of the century”, but are none-the-less beginning to look more and more stylish with every cold day that passes.)
The second point was that living in a hutong – a Chinese neighbourhood created by joining one traditional courtyard house to another to create a maze of narrow streets and alley ways – would be utterly miserable at this time of year. This is by no means a major revelation, but still, it’s this point I’d like to focus on.
My place is on the 14th floor (well, 12B for the superstitious – if the tone of the number 4 “si” is changed, it means “die”) and I have what I think is a nice view onto the local hutong area below.
My mother, being Chinese, disagrees, and thinks I could have gotten a discount on the rent.
The reason I like the view is because you don’t often get to see hutongs anymore in Beijing, and like most foreigners, I guess I’m a sucker for the traditional housing style that echoes nostalgically at a more “simple” China, when people still wore dark blue boiler suits and carried little red books… Also, like most foreigners, I believe that these precious cultural relics should be conserved and regenerated, before Beijing loses all hints of their traditional identity.
I work for a private Chinese property development company and I know that we are actually in the process of buying up the land outside my window. The complex I am living in was developed by them and that land will at some point provide the second phase of apartment blocks. So I know that the days of that particular hutong are numbered. A similar fate that has befallen so may other hutongs, where now high-risers and “modern” shopping malls stand, awaits it.
But the point I want to make about looking down on those makeshift, patched corrugated metal roofs with their dusting of snow, is that thinking about the fact that this place would at some point vanish, gave me a sense of almost… relief. And before all my architecture friends leave angry comments on the subject of my ignorant and snobbish mindset, let me explain:
I’m by no means an expert on the set-up of hutongs, and I’m sure they can vary greatly in amenities and services. For example, when I was first looking for a place to stay in Beijing, I had a look around a courtyard house that had been renovated by it’s owner and contained a foreign girl looking for a housemate. Although it still wasn’t the height of comfort (as you walk in you basically walk into the small dining table that is set up in what should be the foyer area between the front door and the stairs leading up to the first floor), there was a very cozy, and more importantly a warm, feel about the place. However, considering the asking price for rent, I doubt that your average hutong dweller would be able to afford that particular set up.
I’ve also known friends who have stayed with host families in courtyard houses for months on end whilst studying Chinese. One such friend told me that his host family didn’t have electricity. The way to overcome this minor inconvenience? Well, get an electrical cable with a metal fishing hook attached to one end, then every evening swing and hook it into the mass of wires bundled up on the electricity pole outside your house. Then it’s a simple matter of attaching the other end to an electrical box mounted on the outside wall of the house, which is wired up to the rest of the house, and voilla! You are now siphoning electricity directly from the main grid, thus solving all your electrical needs… simple!
He also said that their “shower” was a bucket of water. Also simple, I suppose…
I once got a look inside one for the homes in the hutong next to my flat, when my colleague Amanda and I were looking for someone to fix my kettle. Amanda led me through some random alleyways to the front door of a workshop she’d been to before, and whilst she and the owner were negotiating prices, I had a peek into the guy’s place from the doorway. From what I could gather, his place was basically an all purpose one room dwelling. It had a round table and some chairs in the centre which were littered with bits of other household and electrical appliances. There were parts of half-dismantled TVs, PCs and other electrical objects taking up much of the floor space too (plain concrete floor). Along the back wall was a single bed, on which a teenage girl sat watching a TV on a chest of draws. Next to the TV was a wardrobe and on the right-hand side of the doorway was a dresser with some cooking utensils on it. As far as I could see there was nothing else. Even if there was a door I missed somewhere, I doubt it led to a proper kitchen or bathroom. Both people looked like they hadn’t washed in a while. But what really struck me was how cold it was inside. Both were bundled up in jackets and scarves and wearing their boots indoors.
Having taken all this in I turned to Amanda to ask her how much the guy wanted. She told me the price (60RMB – about £6) and in typical Chinese fashion thought she could get it lower. I said I was happy to pay that – they live in their workshop – and so we left and I felt for the first time pleased with the knowledge that I was probably paying “too much”. When I asked Amanda if that was indeed their home she said “yes, it is a bad thing…” and left it at that.
So you see my longwinded point. Wanting to save the Chinese cultural heritage is all well and good and I certainly am an advocate for it – in theory – but imagine that family living in such conditions in the midst of a Beijing winter when temperatures regularly drop to -10. I doubt very much they care about preserving their country’s heritage when their home doesn’t even have proper heating or running water. I also think they would jump at an opportunity to be re-settled in an apartment with insulation and fully-functioning services.
Of course there is more to the argument (my specialisation at diploma was on urban regeneration). However, I’m not staging an academic debate here, but more just trying to explain the statement I made earlier. Whilst I’m not abandoning the need for cultural preservation, my opinion on it has been severely humbled since I’ve been here. There is still much to explore and learn, but one thing I am convinced of: Until you come to see for yourself the condition in which some people still live in these hutongs, any opinion you have on the conservation of these cultural relics is well placed, but none-the-less purely academic.