The second half of our first day in Beijing was spent touring several of Beijing's hutong neighborhoods. For those that don't know, the hutong is one of the traditional forms of courtyard housing in China. I do not know how widespread the type is, Shanghai for example has its own variation, but it is certainly all over Beijing's center.
As is surely the case every time a historic housing stock is threatened by new development, defenders spring up to defend the structures and the way of life they house. In response, others, accusing the defenders of excessive nostalgia, argue that new development is good because the old structures are over-crowded, lack proper sanitation and provide a quality of life approximate to the date of their construction.
Beijing has not been spared this debate. Intellectually, I side with the latter, but emotionally (particularly after seeing the quality and peripheral location of new development), it becomes hard not to side with the former. As is always the case, the truth likely lies somewhere in the middle.
the man who lived in the hutong we were able to visit in detail
What I found far more interesting was the apparent place the hutong occupies in the imagination of Chinese consumers. While Beijing may be tearing down hutong neighborhoods as brisk clip, they are building new hutong-themed shopping centers just as quickly. Stripped of many of the charming or obnoxious features of hutong neighborhoods like narrow streets, unique odors, and, well, residents, these hutong-style structures house, along with awful tourist traps, international chains like Starbucks and the various luxury good chains that flourish in East Asia. Notable also is the location of the this street. Just south of the Qianmen, the gate that defended the original Ming imperial city, it lies across the (very large and basically impassable) street from Tiananmen Square and along the Imperial axis that runs through the center of Beijing. An important space, and an odd choice for what is essentially a tacky throwback outdoor shopping mall.
We see a little of this phenomenon in Boston with Faneuil Hall and to a lesser degree Newbury Street, both shopping areas, but the location and scale of this area distinguishes it from every other themed shopping street I have visited. In addition, its construction literally in the middle of the "debate" about what to do with Beijing's historic housing stock and the associated populations also makes this site particularly poignant.
storefronts yet to open
you can only sort of tell from this photo, but this street goes on for quite some time. with the pollution, it was to the horizon.
the old new china at night
Anyway, nothing terribly profound, just one of the more interesting new commercial spaces of the city center. The next posts will deal with our site on the periphery, which was a wholly different animal.
Thanks for reading.