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.

 
 
 
 

America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 


In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.