New Beijing eclipses old

The Baltimore Sun

BEIJING - Every other month or so, Philip Lin packs his suitcases, grabs his passport and travels from one home to another. As head of China Business Development for T. Rowe Price, Lin routinely shuttles between his office in downtown Baltimore and Beijing, the city where he was born, where his parents still live, and a place that seems wholly different every time he visits.

"I've personally witnessed the metamorphosis," Lin says.

Over the past two decades, Beijing has undergone drastic change on a scale that has outpaced any other modern city. The 2008 Olympics provided the fuel for even more accelerated progress, while also serving as a looming deadline. At the opening ceremony next month, China will unveil a new Beijing to the world, one rich in culture, one swathed in prosperity and one that bears little resemblance to Lin's childhood memories.

Lin remembers a city with its own rhythm, its own personality, its own inimitable fingerprint. Old men playing checkers roadside. Bicycle vendors selling goods - from coal to fresh chicken. Women inviting neighbors into their courtyards for a cup of hot tea.

"That's the Beijing I remember," says Lin, 47. "That's the Beijing that had its own unique flavor."

When China won the Olympics bid in 2001, government officials wanted to transform a city known for arts, culture and history into a modern-day metropolis, an economic heavyweight. So they essentially sketched out a new city map and laid it right on top of the old one. Ever since, destruction and reconstruction have happened simultaneously.

But what of the old Beijing?

Historic neighborhoods along ancient roads, called hutongs, once stretched from Tiananmen Square more than a mile in every direction. Tiny dwellings with shared courtyards and a labyrinth of narrow alleyways kept neighborhoods tight-knit. With family-owned businesses filling out the communal patchwork, the centuries-old design, distinct to Beijing, was a testament to functionality, if nothing else.

Now 70 percent of the hutongs that existed only 50 years ago are gone.

According to the Geneva-based Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions, 1.5 million Beijing residents have been displaced in preparation for the Olympics. Only 2,700 were displaced in Athens, host of the Summer Games four years ago, according to the same report. An average of 60,000 Beijing homes per year has been demolished since 2006.

On a historical timeline, it's finger-snap gentrification. Ou Ning, a sociologist and filmmaker, characterizes it in simple terms. "If a city wants to develop, you have to sacrifice something," he says, "and this is the cost of change in Beijing."

The push and the pull of new versus old is taking place on nearly every street corner.

Even as Chinese leaders boast of their preservation efforts, many worry about a vanishing way of life. Already, lower-income Chinese have been transplanted from their aging family homes near the city center to high-rise apartments closer to the outskirts of town and, along with them, their traditions and routines.

As Beijing rushes to modernize and its traditional way of life is bulldozed and replaced with big business and 21st-century architecture, the city must decide just how much of its historical and cultural identity it will hold onto.

"We use a metaphor to explain this," says Wang Hui, executive deputy director of communications for the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games. "Beijing is like a growing kid. It would grow up anyway, but this is just helping it to grow up much faster. It was inevitable that Beijing was going to develop. It was going to happen with or without the Olympic Games."

Amid the hutongs southwest of Tiananmen Square, a young couple bats a badminton shuttlecock back and forth in the dirt roadway. A few feet away, Wang leans against the wall, a cigarette dangling from his lower lip.

"Those people who come to Beijing, they're just here to earn a living," he says, the tip of his cigarette turning red. "It is not their responsibility to maintain our culture or to care about our city. I don't like the people, and they're taking away the culture that Beijing has spent years and years building."

Like many fearful of government retribution, Wang won't reveal his last name. He's 54 years old and lives in a home that's bigger than most - 160 square feet. He has lived here since he was a child, but for how much longer, he's not sure.

He scurries inside his home, emerging seconds later, waving a pink piece of paper. It's an eviction notice, posted recently on the home of a lifelong friend. His neighbors have been lured away by developers or forced out by their government. Wang doesn't want to leave, but every day, he says, he's just waiting for a knock on the door.

"Please come back," he says to a visitor, stamping out his cigarette. "It's near. They're coming for me next."

The smell of hot tea fills Tu Weiming's spacious apartment on the campus of Peking University as the soft tones of a wooden flute drift up from nearby Weiming Lake.

"Old Beijing is dead," he declares.

Tu is careful to clarify those words. A Harvard professor, an authority on Confucianism and a visiting lecturer here, he has heard it all before. Beijing has a long history of upheaval, he says, of dismissing the old to welcome the new.

"For a long time in China, there's been this notion that you have to get rid of the old to truly embark on a new era," Tu says. "The old is not just structures, but habits, books, ideas. Everything."

He says the present period of change pays homage to China's rich history. There has been a resurgence in Confucius studies and discussions, particularly among the youth, and many seem interested in safeguarding that which is authentically Chinese. In fact, Chinese leaders are eager to boast about their preservation efforts.

Archaeologists surveyed more than 3 million square feet of land at Olympic venues and unearthed 700 ancient tombs and hundreds of artifacts. Workers discovered an entire eunuch mausoleum buried beneath the site of one Olympic venue. The foundation of the aquatics center was moved so a nearby Taoist temple, 500 years old and dedicated to a fertility goddess, could survive. In their digging, the Chinese have found and preserved bronze mirrors, pots, snuff bottles, porcelain jars and a collection of jewelry that dates back 2,000 years.

"We are extremely concerned about retaining the cultural and historical relics," says Wang, of the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games. She says a primary factor in securing the Games and a focus in preparations is the opportunity to share Chinese culture with the rest of the world.

The goal, she says, "is to achieve a high level of Olympic Games ... [that] includes Chinese characteristics, which is what we'd like to introduce to the world."

The romantic images slowly fade, replaced by the sound of growling bulldozers and the sight of endless cranes, a metal forest across the skyline. While Chinese leaders talk about the future, many Beijing citizens struggle to surrender what was a simpler - if sometimes inconvenient - way of life.

Dazhalan, a large hutong neighborhood off the southwest corner of Tiananmen Square, is perhaps the best example. In a city of more than 8 million people - twice the size of Los Angeles - this one neighborhood is jammed, with more than 57,000 people in a half-square mile, according to one report.

The area, the historical commercial center of Beijing, is more than 500 years old, and some of these businesses have been at their locations for more than a century. The perimeter, though, is lined with neon signs and stores aimed at tourists - gift shops, restaurants and even the world's largest Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Much of Dazhalan still seems from a bygone era. Most people rely on public toilets and pay phones. Roadways are too narrow for a car, so men navigate the maze of alleyways on bicycles with carts trailing behind. They shout "Coal!" or "Trash!" or "Beer!"

In a huge country and a huge city, Dazhalan is a small universe. It is very much an "urban village," says Ou, the filmmaker who studied the area and produced an independent documentary, The Dazhalan Project.

Throughout Beijing, such neighborhoods are self-contained, everything you need just a few blocks away - school, police station, pharmacy, grocery store. Sights such as children walking to school or women pulling carts full of produce are common.

"The architecture, the courtyards, the buildings, much of it has remained unchanged for years and years," Ou says.

Because the neighborhood is so close to Tiananmen Square, the government and developers have re-envisioned what the area should look like, widening roads, tearing down homes and businesses, uprooting centuries of tradition and relocating people who until now had barely wandered outside of Dazhalan.

Of more than 7,000 estimated hutongs in Beijing in the mid-20th century, fewer than 1,000 remain, according to most estimates.

Ou explains that three types of people live in hutongs: Those who moved in from outside and can't afford much else, those who have always lived there and never want to move, and those who will move for the right price.

Developers insist hutongs were torn down because of safety concerns - outdated fixtures, dangerous construction, flammable materials and faulty wiring.

"For the most part, it is not a safe and sanitary place to live," Ou says.

Ou says that even though living conditions might be inconvenient or even unsafe, the roots of Dazhalan residents are buried so deep in the neighborhood that the prospect of leaving is difficult.

The city's boundaries continually expand, and most who are forced from their historic homes end up nearer the outskirts of the city. The high-rise apartments offer modern amenities but little familiarity and even less of a sense of community.

As the composition shifts, the city changes. Family-owned businesses disappear as entire families relocate. Business buildings replace entire neighborhoods. More people are forced to rely on cars to travel from their distant homes.

Michael Meyer is an American writer who took up residence in Dazhalan for three years. His recently released book, The Last Days of Old Beijing, documents how the city profoundly changed as the Olympics approached. When he began his research, Meyer admits, he loved the notion that an aging generation really didn't want to lose its past. Over time, he realized that many residents were more than willing to leave; they just wanted the right price.

But there's no room for negotiation. The price is governed by law, and residents have few rights and little understanding of the process. For locals, Beijing's growth has been clouded by fear and rumor.

"My neighbors every day for two years would wake up to look at the wall and wonder if that was the day it'd be torn down," Meyer says. "I had friends who put off having a baby or changing a job because they just didn't know what was going to happen."

A paved road runs in front of Li's home. Three bikes lean against a wall, and four cars are parked on the other side of the road. There's construction down the street, where asphalt will soon cover what has been just a dirt road for hundreds of years.

"Outsiders come here and they ruin our life, they destroy our culture," barks Li, 64, a retired machinist who worked on ships. "They earn a living and they don't care about what Beijing means. Their language is a kind of slang that is not how we talk."

Li becomes animated talking about outsiders. For him, it's a matter of respect, an issue of identity.

"They come here, but they do not care about the lifestyle," he says. "They've ruined hutongs."

Philip Lin's family has lived in Beijing for generations. The son of a singer and an actor, he grew up in the northwest corner of the city. He attended the Beijing School of International Relations, studied English and left in 1985 at 24 to study in the United States. At the time, the modernization had just started, and Lin wasn't quite certain what he was leaving behind - or what he might return to.

"I saw the gates being taken down," he says of the historic centuries-old wall and towers that surrounded the old city. "Old men in Beijing, they stood and cried for what we were losing."

Today, when Lin returns to Beijing for business, he visits his parents and familiar landmarks. But he's largely a tourist in a foreign land. The homes in which he was born and raised no longer exist. In a sense, the city in which he was born and raised doesn't, either.

"I am like a person who's never been to the city," he says. "It's crazy how different it is. I always go back with mixed feelings. I do enjoy when people tell me, 'Oh, what a beautiful city.' But it's really no different than any other modernized city."

Dennis Frenchman fondly recalls his early impressions here, too. As a leading urban planner at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he has been coming to Beijing for 20 years. Of his first visit, he recalls a memorable hotel, a single modern-looking building with reflective glass. It was a lone, shiny pillar of progress amid an unremarkable string of squat brown and gray buildings.

On subsequent trips, the hotel faded into the background. "It was just another building on the street with no context," Frenchman says, "and it was one of the most shocking experiences I've ever had. It was so bizarre. It'd be like going back to your childhood home and seeing it suddenly in the middle of an urban street. It was very disorienting."

Since that initial trip in 1988, Frenchman has been intimately involved in planning and discussions about Beijing's future. He brings students here every other year and talks simultaneously about preservation and fresh construction. The final results, which most of the world will see for the first time during the Summer Games, are not exactly what Frenchman envisioned.

"I think one solution fit all in Beijing, which was, 'Let's get rid of this old stuff so we can get foreign investment in here and make some money,' " he said.

While most of the world's megalopolises are a product of time and evolution, Frenchman said, Chinese leaders were methodical in the hurried development of Beijing, laying out a city plan as if nothing had been there before.

"It was a big block pattern, and they just plopped it down on the old map as if to say, 'We're going to demolish everything in these red lines to make these new roads and this new city,' " he says.

Driving around Beijing, visitors are struck by the mishmash of architecture, myriad styles that could be found in any other city.

The massive oblong opera house is formally called the National Center for the Performing Arts, but locals refer to it as The Egg. The National Stadium is called the Bird's Nest, because its exterior is a twisted weave of metal. The National Aquatics Center is a rectangular collection of blue bubbles, commonly called the Water Cube. And the towers of the new China Central Television rise in a winding grid of vertical and horizontal sections, like something ripped from an M.C. Escher print.

Of the estimated $190 billion being spent on Beijing's comprehensive makeover, only a quarter relates directly to the Olympics. The rest has gone to China's ground-up approach to remodeling a city.

According to statistics from the Beijing Environment Bureau, more than 6,000 square miles of illegal buildings have been demolished in the past couple of years. Few would argue that the new buildings and homes aren't safer, but the concern seems to be that the government protected the obvious - the China you would find on a postcard - and forsook the nuanced.

"They've lost the character of a functioning thing," Frenchman says. "It's not woven into the fabric of the city. It's been cleaned up to the point where it's lost a lot of its original character."

And while there are thousands of new homes available for the displaced, compensation for their old homes hasn't kept pace with the skyrocketing prices of newly built apartments.

The cost of new homes has continually increased - from $821 per square meter to $1,169 between 2004 and 2006, according to a report published by and New Real Estate Magazine.

But for those living in hutongs and areas targeted for reconstruction, the developer's offer price hasn't budged in six years. Homeowners are given about $1,000 per square meter, a set figure that hasn't increased with inflation or with drastic changes in the real estate market. The average cost of a new home last year ran $1,700 per square meter.

Jiang's home--- the only one the 70-year-old has ever known - is under renovation. She's gathered with neighbors outside, watching as workers lay bricks to repair the decrepit entryway.

She ducks inside and prepares some tea. The walls are bare except for a Chinese calendar and a photo of Mao Tse-tung, China's leader until his death in 1976 . A television, a pair of chairs, two beds, a fridge and a large fish tank complete the room.

Her son works in construction and keeps offering to move her out of Dazhalan and into one of the new, boxy apartment buildings along the city's perimeter. But Jiang can't imagine leaving.

"Here, all of my neighbors, I know them all," she says. "In the tall buildings, the people come from all over China. They do not know each other. This is my life here. I cannot leave it. I do not understand why anyone would leave."

Slowly, people in Beijing are learning a new way of life, largely through trial and error.

Automobiles have replaced bicycles at an extraordinary rate (more than 1,000 new cars appear on Beijing's roads every day). The locals dine at American food chains. They shop at Wal-Mart. There was even briefly a Starbucks in the Forbidden City, until a backlash from locals prompted a change to a national tea chain.

On a map, the city is framed by a series of concentric circles. Second Ring Road roughly represents the ancient city limits. Since 1994, the city has rapidly built out more ring roads from there, and planners are talking about a Seventh Ring Road. Out near Fourth Ring Road is Jenny's, a neighborhood grocery that serves Beijing's growing suburbia. Forty years ago, during Mao's Cultural Revolution, this was an agricultural wasteland where many were sent for "re-education."

Today, though, Jenny's is a popular outpost for both traditional Chinese foods and Western goods - from Campbell's to Kellogg's.

John Zhang is the manager. He came here in 1999 when the area, he says, was "like a desert." In less than a decade, Jenny's has grown from a single cart on the side of the road to five full stores.

Zhang and most other employees are actually from Henan province, a 12-hour train ride away. Living conditions in Beijing are hardly ideal - they all live in a dormitory behind the store - but they come because the money is so much better in Beijing, about 2 1/2 times more than what they would earn back home.

"This is where everyone wants to be," Zhang says. "Things have changed so much since I've been here. And it will change so much more."

Matt Murray, a Baltimore native who lives in Beijing's suburbs, is a regular shopper at Jenny's. Finding his home in a subdivision of expatriates first requires driving past developments with names such as Yosemite, Napa and Irvine.

As their names suggest, there is little about the area that resonates as distinctly Chinese. A Home Depot and a Sizzler aren't far away.

Murray is a Foreign Service officer in the State Department economic section. On weekends, he takes his three children on field trips into the city to explore Chinese culture. It has become tougher. Traditional hutongs in Houhai now face a strip of bars and clubs, their neon signs advertising fun from a far-away world. Sex and the City, one is called.

Not far away, last week's favorite restaurant is this week's vacant building.

"The Olympics are almost a metaphor," Murray says, "for what Beijing and what China is trying to do, in terms of its own economic rising, trying to become more economically powerful on the world stage. I think most people would agree the Olympics are China's coming-out party and Beijing's coming-out party."

Lin, the T. Rowe Price banker, can appreciate the changes and upgrades. Still, he can't help but notice what has been lost.

"It's heartbreaking for me to see that the Beijing that I once knew is no longer there," he says.

"Is it still home?" he is asked.

"My parents are still there, so in that regard, I still have that attachment to it," Lin says. "But in terms of the buildings, the area, the way it looks and feels, no, I don't have that. I have my memories, but it is a different city now."


See a video of Beijing being readied for the Olympics at

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