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On the rubble of old Chinese cities

Otto Kölbl (on facebook), created: 2008-08-10, last modified: 2015-07-21

For several years, the Western media have sharply criticized China for destroying traditional residential quarters. It started a couple of years ago about Shanghai. In recent months the media concentrated more on Beijing in relationship to the building of the Olympic venues. However, no media report ever cares about what "ordinary Chinese" think about this problem.

I have been married during five years to a Chinese wife. In October 2000, on the last day of my first stay in China, she, her brother and her sister in law went with me to Shanghai, where we were to spend one night before I was to get on the plane home the next morning.

When we arrived in the hotel room on the 8th floor, I looked down and was amazed by what I saw. Below me was a mosaic of delicate Chinese roofs, fitting over each other, without any apparent order but still creating a regular pattern. This was the first time I saw a neighborhood of traditional Chinese residential houses, called hutong.

Hutong, i.e. old residential houses, in Beijing, China.

Hutong, i.e. old residential houses, in Beijing. Photograph by Cen Dong, July 2008.

I called my wife and her relatives and told them to look out of the window, because the view was so beautiful. They looked straight at the nightly skyline of Shanghai, which was of course amazing. I told them that the skyline was not what I meant, and asked them to look down, which they did, and laughed. They could not imagine that anybody could be excited about the view of the roofs of a neighborhood of traditional hutong.
Each time I went to China, we stayed in the same hotel. Each year, the size of the hutong neighborhoods around the hotel decreased. They were replaced in a first step by huge construction sites, where work went on day and night. These were in turn replaced by new skyscrapers, much higher than the hotel where we stayed. The same happens of course in all other cities in the country. However, I never met anybody who told me that this was a pity.

Why do the Chinese not love their hutongs? This is probably because most of them know what it means to live in such a house. They have got no sanitation. When you want to go to the toilet, you have to cross the street and go to some kind of open public toilet. It might seem romantic to some Westerners when you say hello to the whole neighborhood when to go pee in the morning, but what when there is a hurricane? Or when in winter the thermometer drops below 20°C, which it does in many parts of China? And what when you get an intestinal flue? How nice when you have to take a 50m sprint under the cheering of the crowd in order to avoid a brownish flooding in your pants ten times a day!

Public toilet in a hutong neighborhood in Beijing, China.

 Public toilet in a hutong neighborhood. Photograph by Cen Dong, July 2008.

 Until a few decades ago, all Chinese cities were covered with tenth or even hundreds of square kilometers of hutongs. Each modern building you see, each supermarket, each school, each sport stadium, have been built on the rubble of a whole neighborhood of these hutongs. Each modern residential building you see accommodates more residents than the hutong on whose rubble it has been built, in much more decent living conditions. In the past decades, hundreds of millions of Chinese have been relocated in the same way as the roughly 10'000 people whose houses were destroyed for the Olympic Games. If they were unhappy about this relocation, they would have swept the Communist regime from power long ago. But nobody asks them about their opinion.

Of course some Westerners might object that all this is not a reason to demolish these hutongs, that they could be restored and fitted with modern comfort. However, you should not forget that China has got a GDP of less than USD 2000.- per capita per year. It is still quite a poor country. Restoring these old houses costs much more than demolishing them and building them new.

What is more, restoring whole cities of one story or two story houses poses terrible problems from the point of view of urban planning and the environment. If you want to house people in decent living conditions, population density in such neighborhoods will be very low. Where do you house all those people who lived there before, but can not live there any more because the rooms where they lived must make place for toilets, more bedrooms, living rooms, etc.?
Of course you can build new residential buildings in the suburbs. However, China has been able to manage its traffic problems only because a large part of the population is used to live quite close to where they work. Moving a large part of the urban population to the suburbs will not only eat up a lot of cultivable land, it will also cause huge transportation problems. It took us Europeans more than one century to build up our transportation infrastructure, and we are still not able to solve our transportation problems in a sustainable way: the way in which we solved this problem until now causes pollution and climate change. Therefore we should let it up to the Chinese to find another way of solving this problem.

A playground in a modern residential neighborhood in Beijing, China

A playground in a modern residential neighborhood.  Photograph by Cen Dong, July 2008.

The way chosen by the Chinese government, with the full support of the Chinese population, is to tear down most of the traditional hutongs, and to replace them with modern residential buildings. This allows many people to live in decent conditions close to the city center, which means close to their workplace. This allows a high population density in the cities, which is essential to save cultivable land and to make efficient public transportation infrastructures affordable.

This does not mean that the Chinese do not care about their culture and their history. When going for a trip, they will often visit historical places like castles, temples, monasteries and other holy sites, historical towns and city centers or isolated buildings which have some historical or architectural value.

A bouddhist temple in Beijing, China, which has been carefully restored.

A Buddhist temple in Beijing which has been carefully restored. Photograph by Cen Dong, July 2008.

The Chinese government does what it takes to restore those places and to protect them against decay and predatory real estate companies. I have been very impressed by the town of Longmen in Zhejiang province. I have been told that it was the capital of a local king some 3000 years ago, and has become a popular tourist attraction. The people still live in their historical houses, when traditional houses in the towns and cities in the region have already been torn down and rebuilt to modern standards. You can see people sitting in the streets on bamboo chairs while assembling badminton rackets for a local company. All around the historical town center, new houses shoot up like mushrooms, but all the historical buildings are protected by a strictly applied law.

Individual houses are also preserved, sometimes on the initiative of individual house owners. The Hutong below has been carefully restored by its owner, who lives in the house on the left (with air conditioning, of course), and will show tourists around in the other parts. He managed to get it recognized by the local government as a house of historical value.

A traditional hutong in Beihing which has been carefully restored and opened to the public by the owner.

A traditional hutong in Beijing which has been carefully restored and opened to the public by the owner. Photograph by Cen Dong, July 2008.

However, most Chinese agree that most hutongs have to be torn down in order to be replaced with modern buildings. Social considerations come before saving these old houses which most consider ugly. In the past, tearing down densely populated hutongs was the only way of providing decent living conditions to the whole population.

In our days, the remaining hutongs are not so densely populated any more. Those who could afford it have already left and bought apartments in new residential buildings. Only the poor are left. If their hutongs are not demolished, they will never have a chance of moving to a decent apartment.

There are of course some people who do not want to move, mostly elder people. The problem is that in a Chinese city, you can not build one single new building without tearing down dozens of hutong houses, and you will find everywhere at least one house inhabited by an elder person which does not want to move. So what do you do? Do you stop building until everybody agrees to move to another place? If China had chosen this way, most Chinese would still live in houses where they just don't want to live.

Another problem is of course the compensation which the inhabitants of those houses which get torn down get. Our media never mention that many people will get a good bargain, in particular those who lived crammed together in a single room. If they choose to get a new apartment in compensation, the surface of this new apartment will be determined according to the number of people who will live there. However, when the media arrive on the site where an old neighborhood is being demolished, those people have already left, and nobody will try to find them to ask for their opinion.

In the past, housing was attributed by the state according to the need of the people: large families got a large apartment, and small families got a small apartment. When some people moved out, the remaining people were not forced to move to a smaller apartment. Therefore, some people ended up occupying quite a large space in traditional hutong houses. They are those who will loose out in the bargain: the Chinese state considers that they do not need such a large surface to live in "decent conditions".

Over time, the attitude in China towards the hutong neighborhoods will probably change. The importance of providing decent living conditions for everybody will decrease as soon as China will be able to provide this for everybody anyway, even without tearing down whole neighborhoods. In parallel, the importance of preserving the cultural heritage will increase. However, I doubt that one day a substantial number of Chinese will regret the large scale destruction of the hutong neighborhoods of the past. Modern cities can not work with a habitat made of tens of square kilometers of single story buildings.

The situation in Chinese cities is quite different from the situation in European cities. Traditional houses have been torn down in Europe at a large scale in the nineteenth century and replaced with five to seven story buildings. These allow for a reasonable population density in our cities and can be modernized at a reasonable cost.

China did not go through such a transformation of its cities in the past, which means that it has to do it now. If we, the West, try to oppose this transformation, the Chinese will only get the impression that we want to prevent their country from developing to the same living standards as we enjoy.

We should maybe also think about our own way of improving our living standard. In Western cities, it does not happen often that residential buildings are torn down and rebuilt. However, many buildings are restored, so that their owners can ask for a higher rent. Quite often, in order to restore a building, all the inhabitants are asked to leave, and after the work is done, the apartments are rent to other people.

Residential buildings in Lausanne, Switzerland, which have been recently restored, after all the former inhabitants who rented appartments in these buildings were kicked out without compensation.

Residential buildings in Lausanne, Switzerland, which have been recently restored, after all the former inhabitants who rented apartments in these buildings were kicked out without compensation. Photograph Otto Kolbl, Lausanne, August 2008.

Some of the inhabitants are elderly who have lived there for decades, and often pay a very low rent. They get no compensation or help whatsoever to move to another apartment, and quite often they will not find a similar apartment at a similar price. However, our media are not really interested in this problem, and nobody has got any idea about how it could be solved.

If anybody has got an idea how China can develop its cities and offer its population decent living conditions without demolishing its hutong, don't hesitate to come forward. However, until somebody finds such a solution, we should respect the right of the Chinese to develop their country as they like.

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