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How Beijing's Old Neighborhoods Are Escaping Gentrification

Article illustrative image Partner logo Life in the hutong

BEIJING - From his pigeon house, Wan Lianxi overlooks a sea of misshapen roofs and walls overgrown with weeds. He recently added a corrugated plastic roof for shade.

Wan started raising homing pigeons in downtown Beijing 40 years ago - when he was still a teenager. Today, he has about 100 of them. During races, in fall and spring, his fastest birds are released a couple of hundred kilometers from Beijing. An electronic chip allows judges to measure the birds’ speed and make sure that they make it home safely.

If Wan was living in another neighborhood of Beijing, far from this hutong (narrow lane), he would either have to be very rich to own a home with a pigeon house on the roof - or have to build one of the illegal aviaries hidden on netted balconies which city officials are waging a war against.

Beijing’s traditional hutong neighborhoods – which have survived several waves of demolitions – have a countryside feel. We are southwest from Qianmen, “the gate of the Zenith Sun,” which once guarded the southern entry into the old Tatar city – where another hutong neighborhood was recreated. It now hosts many fast food restaurants and souvenir shops. This enclave seems unaffected by time: overgrown trees have made the job of builders and electric post fencers even harder. The prettiest houses are covered in yellow flowers about to grow into endless cucumber plants. Courtyards are filled with junk, which has also taken over delivery bicycles and windowsills. Bedding, pajamas and underwear dry in the hot August sun. You can tell where the public toilets are by their smell and the comings and goings around them. In the hutong, few houses have their own toilets. These ones, like most public toilets in China, don't have doors.

Standing on a prehistoric-looking bike, a copper-skinned eighty-year-old knife sharpener offers his services. “Who has got knives to sharpen?” he asks repeatedly. At night, on Zongshu Xiejie (Palm Trees Alley), locals set tables on the street to play cards, checkers and mahjong. People are coming home from work while others are leaving. “You have to go to Bada Hutong – one of the eight great hutongs – to play mahjong. There are great sets made of bones, solid wooden tables and there are beautiful girls,” wrote intellectual Liang Shih-chiu about this neighborhood, which was once famous for its brothels.

Palm Trees Alley, where bird lover Wan was born and raised, used to be called Wang’s Widow Street. Wang’s widow’s brothel was one of the street’s most famous. Is it the former bathhouse next to Wan’s house, with two balconies on each floor overlooking an inner courtyard? Nobody knows – all they know for sure is that it was turned into a youth center after the Cultural Revolution. There are 16 electric meters in the lobby – one for each apartment – or hut - converted by previous or current tenants. In November 1949, a month after the People’s Republic of China was proclaimed, communist leaders declared war on Bada Hutong: the new public security secretary launched a huge cleaning operation of the brothels the same night, “freeing” 1000 girls. They were immediately sent to re-education camps, to be released less than a year later.

No gentrification here

What remains of Bada Hutong is unlikely to change – it is too close to the historical center to be turned into tower blocks. It will probably not be subject to gentrification either, as the square-shaped courtyards that foreigners love so much are in dire conditions. A few inns still try to attract foreign travelers with signs in English. The scar of the past might just save the neighborhood from urban renewal.

Inhabitants of Bada Hutong are diverse: there are retired families, like Qi Renmin's (whose first name means “people”), who mostly rent cheap state-owned houses. Mr. Qi pays a dozen Yuan a month (less than $2) for 11m2, since his Beijing retiree status enables him to receive a monthly housing benefit of 3000 Yuan ($473). If they can afford to, the children of these Lao Beijing (“true Beijingers”) move to the neighboring tower blocks or the suburbs.

Then there are the waidiren - the outsiders - who are slowly transforming Beijing’s low-income neighborhoods. Yuan Yu, 40, comes from Hunan. She opened a foot massage parlor a year ago on Palm Trees Alley. A 45-minute session costs only 30 Yuan (almost $5), which is much cheaper than in anywhere else in the center of Beijing.  Zhao Nuo, 20, originally from Harbin, and his partners started a printing and binding business. His parents followed suit and opened a jiaozi Chinese dumpling restaurant, further down the alley. Since renting a room or a store is cheap, a growing number of people are settling in Bada Hudong – yet it is not as visible as in the city’s suburbs - nicknamed Beijing’s “ant colonies.” Life here, like it is there, is peaceful – just like a village.

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