Sunday, July 27, 2008

There was a good article in the Sunday NY times about the disappearance of hutongs, or the narrow alley-ways, in Beijing.

In tracing the history of the city, Nicolai Ouroussoff notes:

The current wave of demolitions was under way by the early 1990s as free-market changes gained momentum, and real estate speculators saw potential profit in redevelopment. It accelerated after Beijing’s bid to play host to the Olympics was accepted in 2001 and the city began a substantial slum-clearance program to prepare for foreign visitors.

But I love the following words which ring true not only for Beijing but any urban city around Asia, Africa or even parts of North America (yup, even Canada, which is considered a new country).

The sad truth, as any architectural historian knows, is that poverty is often good for preservation; poor people lack the resources to tear down and rebuild houses every generation. Once an affluent homeowner moves into a faded landmark, the first thing he or she does is bring in an army of restorers — or bulldozers. Preservationists, who tend to have limited economic clout, strike a Faustian bargain: better to save the basic architecture and let others worry about what goes on inside. Breaking the pattern without aggressive government intervention seems almost impossible.

Having never been to China, I am only familiar with these hutongs through memorable films such as Beijing Bicycle or Electric Shadows. The narrow alleys shown were a meeting place for a chance encounter or formed a background for a cycle race -- a young kid racing his bike through the alley only to stumble near the end.

1 comment:

Pacze Moj said...

Same with me: I picture the (not very man, sadly) Chinese films I've seen.

I read a somewhat similar piece recently (again, I've never actually seen or been in one) on the disappearance of rickshaws. The question was whether it's good to get rid of a form of human transportation that many people find demeaning, or whether getting rid is actually bad for the people who both make their livelihoods by pulling rickshaws and those who use rickshaws because they're the only transportation they can afford.

Now I'm picturing a rickshaw speeding down a hutong.