2008: I remember it clearly like it was yesterday. The route from the apartment to Tsinghua University would take me through the warren of narrow streets, alleyways and dirt tracks of the Qianbajia and Houbajia villages the likes I’d never seen before. This twice daily half an hour overload of information to the senses was everything I’d come to China for.
It took ages to work out how to get through to the other side but talk about worth it! Thousands of tiny buildings roughly thrown together, an attestation to the resourceful nature of Chinese people. Households all recycle. Used materials get stacked outside stored under tarpaulins saved for maintaining their property, bike or for growing plants. This is Beijing’s Hutong.
Maybe twenty five percent of the population of Beijing still lives in the hutong and it’s been this way for centuries though as Beijing’s population continues to sky-rocket, these areas are now rapidly being torn down. In less than a week nearly the whole of Qianbajia and Houbajia was demolished in order to make way for new development. I couldn’t believe it! A way of life gone forever!
My first reaction was somewhat misplaced. A Westernised romantic view of the hutong, the local people hounded out by the wicked ‘powers that be’ and the sad destruction of a bygone era. Actually, it turns out that people around here have a special reason to keep smiling if they are asked to move on. Indeed they get a couple of choices. The first is to move to a new place with the ability to move back again after the building has finished and pay half the cost of a new place. The other is to receive from what many locals tell me around here, is a substantial pay-out.
The honest truth about many of the villages here are they are so incredibly poor that people live in really filthy conditions. They only have public shared toilets and when you use one you will turn instantly green, especially during a nice hot summer’s day. When it’s cold, life is harder than hard and keeping warm is all existence is about. Who’d want to bring their kid up in that?
I cycled home in a torrential downpour through a hutong area the other night. The whole area became instantly flooded and the amount of rubbish and ‘matter’ in the water was ridiculous. I could feel myself instantly going down with some foul germ from hell and was sick for days after.
Map of SiJie
Reality aside, from the Qianbajia and Houbajia the next hutong in line is the SiJie Village right around the corner from where I live. Hemmed in between the Qinghe River, G6 and 5th Ring Road, SiJie continues as if it’s trying to go on unnoticed; a hidden vibrant community filled with life. That it will be levelled for new apartment blocks is pure speculation, but I can’t help but worry how long it’s going to be before it’s gone. Based on how things move and change so quickly in Beijing I’m not holding much hope.
I love SiJie and consider myself lucky to be around while it’s still here.