The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed

Michael Meyer’s book about living in one of the surviving hutongs that was slated for destruction in the tidal wave of modernization that the 2008 Beijing Olympics brought. This was a great read, well written and packed full of detail about the crumbling neighborhood that was a community destined to be exploded to the winds. Once evicted by The Hand, they could fight for compensation that would barely get them a part of one of the new (and not yet constructed) apartments that were in suburbs far from their current location. It was a great reminder that this type of destruction of the past is happening everywhere, and nowhere as rapidly as in China.

Meyer comes to China with the Peace Corps and stays on to teach English at a local school in his hutong, Dazhalan. He is known as Little Plumblossom and accepted into the community, and his book provides us with a stunning first-hand experience of the destruction of this part of town. Drawings go up around town to depict the future avenue, only the people aren’t Chinese but white-skinned. “The only depicted shop signs were for Pizza Hut and Starbucks.” This new plan completely disregarded the principles of feng shui that once governed the construction of imperial cities in China, where a town’s central axis should be unimpeded in the south and shielded in the north.

He used to play hockey with other locals on a lake near the Drum and Bell towers and there was an old man who had been sharpening skates since 1937, even during the 8 winters of Japanese occupation. “He was no match for developers, however. In the winter of 2005, his locale had been fenced off with panels of blue-painted tin shrouding the construction of an upscale restaurant. In a sense, the center of the Old City was reverting to its original form, when it was the playground of royalty and its acolytes.”

Construction never stops, even in the case of discovering 2,000 year old artifacts. The Cultural Relics Bureau was given a week to grab what they could from the discovered site before the land was covered with new cement foundations.

One explanation for the lack of interest in historic sites comes from architect Zhang who noted that Chinese building materials and design remained largely unchanged over 2,000 years. Old buildings were seen as reminders of feudalism.

This section reminds us that the whole world was destroying its old buildings:

The assault continued worldwide throughout the last century, as historic cities modernized. “Between the years 1900 and 2000, nearly one quarter of the landmarks of Amsterdam were leveled by Amsterdammers,” writes Anthony Tung in Preserving the World’s Great Cities. “More than half of the indexed buildings of Islamic Cairo—one of the few intact medieval Muslim cities that had existed at the beginning of the century—were destroyed by Cairenes.”

Singapore tore itself down. Athenians looted “all but a minute fraction” of their city’s nineteenth-century design. Thousands of New York building were razed by New Yorkers. Moscow knocked over its onion domes and bell towers. Despite that their city was spared from incendiary bombing during World War II, Kyoto’s residents pulled down most of its wooden buildings afterward. “Romans demolished a third of Rome’s historic structures.” The Turks allowed Istanbul’s Ottoman architecture to rot. Beginning in 1949, Beijing worried its Old Cit like a scab, scratching away the city wall, tearing off its hutong. So did the rest of China: of the three hundred walled cities that existed at the founding of the People’s Republic, only four remained intact.

Haussmann’s Paris also gets discussed. But is preservation the right answer? Meyer mentions seeing the ancient capital of Luang Prabang, Laos threatened not by bulldozers, but tourists. The historic structures were converted to guesthouses, increasing sewage, traffic, and making the city a cultural Disneyland.

This is crazy to think about: “At a time when New York was building skyscrapers such as the Empire State Building, Beijing still delivered water to homes by wheelbarrow.”