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.

 
 
 
 

Everything you ever wanted to know about the Seoul Metro System but were too afraid to ask

Gwanghwamoon subway station on line 5 in Seoul, 2010. Image: Getty.

Seoul’s metro system carries 7m passengers a day across 1,000 miles of track. The system is as much a regional commuter railway as an urban subway system. Without technically leaving the network, one can travel from Asan over 50 miles to the south of central Seoul, all the way up to the North Korean border 20 miles north of the city.

Fares are incredibly low for a developed country. A basic fare of 1,250 won (about £1) will allow you to travel 10km; it’s only an extra 100 won (about 7p) to travel every additional 5km on most lines.

The trains are reasonably quick: maximum speeds of 62mph and average operating speeds of around 20mph make them comparable to London Underground. But the trains are much more spacious, air conditioned and have wi-fi access. Every station also has protective fences, between platform and track, to prevent suicides and accidents.

The network

The  service has a complex system of ownership and operation. The Seoul Metro Company (owned by Seoul City council) operates lines 5-8 on its own, but lines 1-4 are operated jointly with Korail, the state-owned national rail company. Meanwhile, Line 9 is operated jointly between Trans-Dev (a French company which operates many buses in northern England) and RATP (The Parisian version of TfL).

Then there’s Neotrans, owned by the Korean conglomerate Doosan, which owns and operates the driverless Sinbundang line. The Incheon city government, which borders Seoul to the west, owns and operates Incheon Line 1 and Line 2.

The Airport Express was originally built and owned by a corporation jointly owned by 11 large Korean firms, but is now mostly owned by Korail. The Uijeongbu light railway is currently being taken over by the Uijeongbu city council (that one’s north of Seoul) after the operating company went bankrupt. And the Everline people mover is operated by a joint venture owned by Bombardier and a variety of Korean companies.

Seoul’s subway map. Click to expand. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The rest of the lines are operated by the national rail operator Korail. The fare structure is either identical or very similar for all of these lines. All buses and trains in the region are accessible with a T-money card, similar to London’s Oyster card. Fares are collected centrally and then distributed back to operators based on levels of usage.

Funding

The Korean government spends around £27bn on transport every year: that works out at 10 per cent more per person than the British government spends.  The Seoul subway’s annual loss of around £200m is covered by this budget.

The main reason the loss is much lower than TfL’s £458m is that, despite Seoul’s lower fares, it also has much lower maintenance costs. The oldest line, Line 1 is only 44 years old.


Higher levels of automation and lower crime rates also mean there are fewer staff. Workers pay is also lower: a newly qualified driver will be paid around £27,000 a year compared to £49,000 in London.

New infrastructure is paid for by central government. However, investment in the capital does not cause the same regional rivalries as it does in the UK for a variety of reasons. Firstly, investment is not so heavily concentrated in the capital. Five other cities have subways; the second city of Busan has an extensive five-line network.

What’s more, while investment is still skewed towards Seoul, it’s a much bigger city than London, and South Korea is physically a much smaller country than the UK (about the size of Scotland and Wales combined). Some 40 per cent of the national population lives on the Seoul network – and everyone else who lives on the mainland can be in Seoul within 3 hours.

Finally, politically the biggest divide in South Korea is between the south-west and the south-east (the recently ousted President Park Geun-Hye won just 11 per cent of the vote in the south west, while winning 69 per cent in the south-east). Seoul is seen as neutral territory.  

Problems

A driverless train on the Shinbundang Line. Image: Wikicommons.

The system is far from perfect. Seoul’s network is highly radial. It’s incredibly cheap and easy to travel from outer lying areas to the centre, and around the centre itself. But travelling from one of Seoul’s satellite cities to another by public transport is often difficult. A journey from central Goyang (population: 1m) to central Incheon (population: 3m) is around 30 minutes by car. By public transport, it takes around 2 hours. There is no real equivalent of the London Overground.

There is also a lack of fast commuter services. The four-track Seoul Line 1 offers express services to Incheon and Cheonan, and some commuter towns south of the city are covered by intercity services. But most large cities of hundreds of thousands of people within commuting distance (places comparable to Reading or Milton Keynes) are reliant on the subway network, and do not have a fast rail link that takes commuters directly to the city centre.

This is changing however with the construction of a system modelled on the Paris RER and London’s Crossrail. The GTX will operate at maximum speed of 110Mph. The first line (of three planned) is scheduled to open in 2023, and will extend from the new town of Ilsan on the North Korean border to the new town of Dongtan about 25km south of the city centre.

The system will stop much less regularly than Crossrail or the RER resulting in drastic cuts in journey times. For example, the time from llsan to Gangnam (of Gangnam Style fame) will be cut from around 1hr30 to just 17 minutes. When the three-line network is complete most of the major cities in the region will have a direct fast link to Seoul Station, the focal point of the GTX as well as the national rail network. A very good public transport network is going to get even better.