Bricking up Beijing: Could the end of the hutong mean the end of street life in the Chinese capital?

A bricked up doorway in Beijing. Image: Thomas Bird/author provided.

On 1 June, Rain Xiao looked in horror as the ominous threat to her business materialised over night in the form of a pile of bricks. Within days, workers had bricked up her bar Cellar Door and other lively haunts along Fangjia Hutong – an alleyway popular with cosmopolitan Beijing denizens.

“I came to Beijing in 2009 and began working in cafés and bars,” she explains. “I learned how to make cocktails and coffees. I knew all the customers.” 

The ease with which English-fluent Xiao developed a rapport with expats prompted her to open her own business. In 2011 she rented a hole-in-the-wall hutong abode and set-up shop.

“I slept in the bar for 18 months. I put socks on my hands to keep warm,” she says of her initial years in business.

 

Rain Xiao looks out of her shop window. Image: Thomas Bird/author provided.

Xiao’s assiduousness paid off. Cellar Door cultivated a reputation as a laidback watering hole for those seeking craft beer enjoyed to an alt-rock soundtrack, the antitheist of tawdry karaoke parlours or seedy expat dives elsewhere. Xiao met English teacher Nicholas Kingston-Smith in Cellar Door and they were married in 2014.

“I have a business licence but it’s more than that,” she says fighting off the tears. “It’s my home.”

*****

It was Autumn 2016 when a curious phenomenon prompted Beijingers to start sharing photos of bricks appearing in the capital’s labyrinthine inner city. These bricks were soon cemented into the doors and windows of small business, from noodles joints to fruit vendors. 

The threat had loomed for nearly a decade when the government made the eradication of improvised buildings an urban priority back in 2008. But business carried on undaunted in the city’s uniquely vibrant old quarters. 

Beijing has been the capital of China for much of the last nine hundred years. It was during the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) that the Mongol word hutong was first coined to refer to the narrow streets and alleyways common in the cities of northern China. By the Qing dynasty (1644 to 1912) Beijing was a walled citadel, where, as Chinese historian Jeremiah Jenne explains, “the hutong courtyards served as official residents for the banner men of the Qing court.”

A Hutong.  Image: Thomas Bird/author provided.

After the collapse of imperial China, this remarkably well-preserved medieval city would enter a century of unprecedented change. Its city walls were felled during the Nationalist-era, but it was after the Communist revolution of 1949 when it began to radically alter.

During the Beijing City Planning Conference of 1949 two foreign-educated architects, Liang Sicheng and Chen Zhanxiang, offered a vision for Beijing whereby the historic city would be conserved, while essential functions like administration would be moved to satellite towns. Their ideas were ignored as city planners adopted a soviet model and rushed to build a modern city. 

Demolition and expansion only accelerated after the 1980s when China’s booming economy fuelled exponential expansion. Today Beijing has become a metropolis of over 20m souls. It now confronts the issues foreseen by Liang and Chen of an overcrowded urban centre with associated woes, most notably air pollution. 

Throughout the tumultuous period Beijing has seen waves of migration from the provinces, particularly during the 1990s when migrant workers came to construct new high-rise towers. With the relaxation of the hukou – household registration laws – many rented hutong dwellings and established small businesses. 

But as government has attempted to cap urban population at 23m, the grey area those businesses persisted in ever since has turned decidedly black. According to Reuters, “Under a three-year plan to clean up 1,674 hutongs, the municipal government is targeting illegal construction. That’s more than two-thirds of all existing hutongs...”

Human rights issues have been raised as shopkeepers complain they’re not even given time to close-up before the bricks arrive outside their doors. Charges of harassment abound. James Palmer, author of The Death of Mao argues that, “a sensible city policy would have been to enable small business owners to pave a path to legitimacy”. He adds that, if congestion is the issue “why not make hutongs car-free?”


The abiding lack of transparency is prompting much conjecture amongst China watchers. “I don’t think there’s a plan, there’s many competing visions,” says Jenne. “The Public Security bureau will want less people, the Tourist Bureau will want to bolster numbers.” 

Some imagine that the hutongs are poised to be redeveloped for tourism in the guise of Nanluo Guxiang – a tawdry tourist strip that attracts droves of sightseers to experience a simulacra of hutong life. Others imagine a return to Qing China: courtyard houses occupied by well-to-do families, devoid of the street life that made exploring them so much fun.  

Some businesses have survived the brick-up, either through relocation or sheer stoicism. Rain Xiao has rebranded Cellar Door as Cellar Window and now serves loyal customers through a window. 

The Cellar Door today.  Image: Thomas Bird/author provided.

But what concerns many is the cultural vibrancy of the city. The hutongs germinated the seeds of contrarianism that makes the capital so fascinating. It was on the back alleys that rock music flowered. The artist community has already expressed anguish through various exhibitions and performances under the umbrella, “Celebrating Hutong Resilience”.  

Yet for those who’ve defined their Beijing experience in the hutong bars and dumpling shops, or indeed, the migrants who run these enterprises, the writing might be on the bricked-up wall. As one Fangjia barfly put it, “just think how much this city changed before 2008,” noting the looming 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. 

Nobody knows the endgame. The old heart of Beijing has endured rapacious change over the last century but in the shadow the imperial Drum Tower it now beats with an uncertain, uneven metre. 

Thomas Bird is an East Asia-based writer. He has contributed to several guidebooks including Rough Guides China.

 
 
 
 

There isn’t a single national housing market – so we need multiple models of local regeneration, too

Rochdale. Image: Getty.

This week’s budget comes ten years after the 2007 financial crisis. The trigger for that crisis was a loss in confidence in mortgages for homes, with banks suddenly recognising the vulnerability of loans on their books.

In the last ten years, the UK’s cities and regions have followed very different paths. This week’s focus on housing affordability is welcome, but it will be a challenge for any chancellor in the coming decade to use national policy to help towns up and down the country. Local housing markets differ drastically. The new crop of city-region mayors are recognising this, as rents in parts of south Greater Manchester are on average double the rents in parts of the north of the city-region.

When it comes to buying a home, politicians are increasingly articulate about the consequences of inequity in our housing system. But we must recognise that, for 9m citizens who live in social rented homes, the prospects of improvements to properties, common areas and grounds are usually tied to wider projects to create new housing within existing estates – sometimes involving complete demolition and rebuilding.

While the Conservative governments of the 1980s shrank the scale of direct investment in building homes for social rent, the Labour governments from the late 1990s used a sustained period of growth in property prices to champion a new model: affordable housing was to be paid for by policies which required contributions to go to housing associations. Effectively, the funding for new affordable housing and refurbished social homes was part of the profit from market housing built next door, on the same turf; a large programme of government investment also brought millions of social rented homes up to a decent standard.

This cross-subsidy model was always flawed. Most fundamentally, it relies on rising property prices – which it is neither desirable nor realistic to expect. Building more social homes became dependent on ratcheting up prices and securing more private profit. In London, we are starting to see that model come apart at the seams.

The inevitable result has been that with long social housing waiting lists and rocketing market prices, new developments have too often ended up as segregated local communities, home to both the richest and the poorest. They may live side by side, but as the RSA concluded earlier this year, investment in the social infrastructure and community development to help neighbours integrate has too often been lacking. Several regeneration schemes that soldiered on through the downturn did so by building more private homes and fewer social rented homes than existed before, or by taking advantage of more generous legal definitions of what counts as ‘affordable housing’ – or both.

A rough guide to how house prices have changed since 2007: each hexagon is a constituency. You can explore the full version at ODI Leeds.

In most of England’s cities, the story does not appear to be heading for the dramatic crescendo high court showdowns that now haunt both developers and communities in the capital. In fact, for most social housing estates in most places outside London, national government should recognise that the whole story looks very different. As austerity measures have tightened budgets for providers of social housing, budgets to refurbish ageing homes are under pressure to do more with less. With an uncertain outlook for property prices, as well as ample brownfield and greenfield housing sites, estates in many northern towns are not a priority for private investors in property development.

In many towns and cities – across the North and the Midlands – the challenges of a poor quality built environment, a poor choice of homes in the local are, and entrenched deprivation remain serious. The recent reclassification of housing associations into the private sector doesn’t make investing in repairs and renewal more profitable. The bespoke ‘housing deals’ announced show that the government is willing to invest directly – but there is anxiety that devolution to combined authorities simply creates another organisation that needs to prioritise building new homes over the renewal of existing neighbourhoods.


In Rochdale, the RSA is working with local mutual housing society RBH to plan for physical, social and economic regeneration at the same time. Importantly, we are making the case – with input from the community of residents themselves – that significant investment in improving employment for residents might itself save the public purse enough money to pay for itself in the long-run.

Lots of services are already effective at helping people find work and start a job. But for those for whom job searching feels out of reach, we are learning from Rochdale Borough Council’s pioneering work that the journey to work can only come from trusting, personal relationships. We hear time and again about the demoralising effect of benefits sanctions and penalties. We are considering an alternative provision of welfare payments, as are other authorities in the UK. Importantly, residents are identifying clearly the particular new challenges created by new forms of modern employment and the type of work available locally: this is a town where JD Sports is hiring 1000 additional workers to fulfil Black Friday orders at its warehouse.

In neighbourhoods like Rochdale’s town centre, both national government and the new devolved city-region administration are considering an approach to neighbourhood change that works for both people and place together. Redevelopment of the built environment is recognised as just one aspect of improving people’s quality of life. Residents themselves will tell you quality jobs and community facilities are their priority. But without a wider range of housing choices and neighbourhood investment locally, success in supporting residents to achieve rising incomes will mean many residents are likely to leave places like Rochdale town centre altogether.

Meaningful change happen won’t happen without patience and trust: between agencies in the public sector, between tenants and landlords, and between citizens and the leaders of cities. This applies as much to our planning system as it does to our complex skills and employment system.

Trust builds slowly and erodes quickly. As with our other projects at the RSA, we are convinced that listening and engaging citizens will improve policy-making. Most of those involved in regeneration know this better than anyone. But at the national level we need to recognise that, just as the labour market and the housing market vary dramatically from place to place, there isn’t a single national story which represents how communities feel about local regeneration.

Jonathan Schifferes is interim Director, Public Services and Communities, at the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA).