Beijing 2006: Out with the old, in with the new

Yes, I’m still here!

OK, guys and gals, I know you’ve missed me. :) Not that I was away but… Some of you (you know who you are) have started to pester me: “when can we see new work of yours?”. The truth is: I’ve been extremely busy (still am!) – mostly moving old websites to new servers, and lots of preparations for creating a whole bunch of new web sites. It all takes a lot of time, as well as concentration. And I’m learning loads of new stuff (which makes me happy), and I also managed to break my toe – both of which means I need more sleep than usual.

In short: the perfect combination to really not have time left for RedBubble. I swear it’s only temporary though. (And my toe is healing well, thank you.)

Anyway, I decided to take a “break” and spend a day on RedBubble. I still owe you all the second part of my “Beijing 2006 – the hutong” series, so I spent half the day on setting that up. Read on…

Beijing 2006: Out with the old, in with the new

The first part of the Beijing 2006 – the hutong series shows mostly the “old” hutong – much of which still existed in 2006 in Beijing, but parts of which were also disappearing – and fast. Beijing, and the rest of the country was furiously preparing for the upcoming Beijing Olympics in 2008 and that meant such things as a number of new subway lines, new or wider roads to deal with increased traffic, new venues for the actual games, new apartment blocks and hotels to house athletes and visitors. The city wanted to look its best, so major monuments like the Temple of Heaven and the Forbidden City were being completely renovated. All of this had started before 2006 – when I was there a year earlier, the city was a forest of building cranes. But what had barely started then was the process of renovation and replacement of old hutong.

The role of the Olympics

The upcoming Olympics certainly were a big trigger for the demolition of large sections of hutong – but why? One reason was the fact that several roads needed to be widened for the increased traffic pressure – a process that was happening anyway, only ‘enlarged’ by the Olympics themselves, and the influx of lots of extra workers for all of that building activity.

The second reason was that the city was expecting huge numbers of tourists around the period of the Olympics, and most of those tourists would be concentrated in certain hot spots: Old, dilapidated hutong would not make a good impression, so they had to make place for parks, shiny new shops, and new high-rise apartment blocks.

Other factors

Most visitors to China who witnessed hutong and other old quarters in other cities than Beijing (such as Lhasa and Kashgar) being torn down and new buildings erected in their place around this period thought that that was all there was to it: China wanting to look new, modern and dynamic, so all that was old had to go. But this wasn’t new, and it’s far more complex than that. Many factors play a role, often at the same time,


Urbanization is an important part of changes in China. Partly this is driven by the growing economy (many jobs are to be had in the large urban centers), partly this is deliberately stimulated, and environmentally speaking it makes sense: people living in urban concentrations use fewer resources that people in the countryside, because many resources can be shared. And a city is more ‘efficient’ when it is concentrated rather than sprawling: it means fewer people have to make fewer trips and for shorter distances. As to Beijing, it lies in a beautiful valley which provides the city not just with fresh air but also grows much of its food. So urbanisation means making the city more compact, and housing more people on the same area. For that reason alone, gradually all the old, single-story hutong houses will make place for high-rise buildings.


Some of the old hutong are not just old, they are also often crumbling, leaky, and lack proper sanitation; even in 2005, in some areas, one could still see people in their pajamas walking to the neighborhood bathhouse (bedpan in hand, even). In a very old city like Kashgar it was known that there were some sanitary sewers, but also that their capacity was too small, and – more importantly – it was not known where they were. That complicates any plans for renovation – to say the least. According to modern standards, many old houses were not fit to live in and thus had to be replaced. A very similar process went on in much of Western Europe shortly after World War II, partly because many houses had been bombed, and partly because they simply were not fit to live in and lacked proper sanitation of even running water.


Expel Tajik business owners (and a few Chinese) from their shops, completely renovate the buildings, and then offer them back for rent. What do get? Mostly very unhappy Tajiks because they cannot afford the new much higher rent for their old shops. The Chinese on the other hand are subsidized to live here, and can afford the rents. So most Tajiks are out of business or relegated to a stand on the market, and the Han Chinese dominate the economy. That’s just one example I witnessed in Tashkurgan, in Xinjiang (Western China) just across from the border with Pakistan. Similar things have been happening in Kashgar (Xinjiang) and Lhasa (Tibet). Renovation as an instrument of political pressure on already unhappy “minorities”.

All together

While the upcoming Olympics were new, the processes of urbanization, renewal and political pressure were far from new – but by 2006 they were all coming together all over China, with the Olympics also posing a very hard deadline. People being expelled from their old houses and offered new places to live was nothing new either – the difference in the days before the Olympics was that on the one hand people actually started to protest – publicly (protests in Shanghai stopped too much demolition, people actually wanted to preserve some old buildings) – but also that China had opened up to the international press much more (it had to, for the Olympics), so such protests were being reported on in international news channels. This made it seem as if all this was new – but it wasn’t, only the Olympics were.

The three other factors, urbanization, renewal and politics disguised as renewal, have been causing changes in China’s cities for decades already. If you walk around in Beijing and pay attention to building styles, it soon becomes obvious that there are old hutong. not-so-old hutong, newer hutong, all the way to modern high-rises.

The photos

The following series of photos illustrates some of this process (tearing down hutong to make place for new roads and newer buildings) as well as buildings from different periods that had already replaced older hutong. At the same time some hutong that were in a much better state were just being renovated, but unfortunately I have no pictures of that.

The descriptions with the photos will tell the rest of the story – a story with both cheerful and sad notes. There will be about a dozen images, one or two per day – the first should appear tomorrow.


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