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When east meets west in Wudaoying

SEP . 06 2011

Peking University, Sep. 1, 2011: On a usual day, when Wu Dong, a man in his 70s, strolls with his bird in a small park, humming a ditty leisurely, Liu Yan, a woman in her late 20s, is still soundly asleep; when Wu lies in a lounge chair and enjoys the sunshine with a cup of jasmine tea in his hand, Liu just stretches herself with a yawn and opens up the shop door; when Wu turns off the TV, taking another puff from his pipe before going to bed, Liu is busy welcoming her customers with smiles.

 

Are they living in two different countries or two different time zones? Actually, neither. They live on two sides of the same hutong in Beijing – Wudaoying, with no more than 100 meters away.

 

The difference in time between the east side and west side of Wudaoying, a hutong for military camping in Qing Dynasty, is not just an interesting coincidence. Rather, it represents the two distinctive lifestyles and utilization patterns of ancient hutongs, widely coexisting in time-honored residential areas in Beijing. Though both the young and the old generations care for these hutongs, they hold quite different views on how to preserve them.


"I do not like those stores and bars in this hutong," said Wu. "Quiet nights are usually destroyed by unexpected beer bottles from drunken men."


Wu Dong has lived in this hutong for over 60 years, and five years ago, he renovated his old house and rented the first floor to a young shop owner. Now, on every sunny day, he would like to sit on the front stairs of the opposite house, looking at the new shops around.


"Foreign bars, modern clothes, luxuries – so many things are in exotic and fashionable styles," Wu said. In his opinion, the traditional Chinese garments such as Tang suit are what should be sold here. He considers the hutong-shops “too western and modern” to fit in the old inhabitants’ daily life.

 

But the young renter of his spare house, Liu Yan, holds a quite different view. She opened this "Tiandefang Dress" in Wudaoying a year ago. This shop mainly sells self-designed clothes and embroidery works made by experienced old needle-workers. Interestingly, like Wu, Liu also considers it important to keep the original atmosphere of a hutong; nevertheless she does not regard her shop as too "modern."


The clothes sold in her shop are all very loose and thus comfortable to wear. She believes that such designs are very different from those modern designs in big shopping malls, and accommodate well to the "traditional spirit of Zen." "They fit well in the traditional environment here," she said.

 

Thus, it seems that the difference between these two generations does not lie in the idea of whether to retain traditional elements in hutongs or not, but in the definition of what is "traditional." Actually, in the age of globalization, the problem is even more complex. When the local and traditional meet the global and fashionable, which will thrive and which will decline?

 

 

"Café Indie," a popular café shop in Wudaoying. The man sits in front of a traditional hutong house just beside this modern bar, which gives us a contrast between the old and the young, the east and the west.

 

 

Second floor of Café Indie.

 

A shop’s outside window. It shows the typical opening hours of shops in Wudaoying: from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., a rather unusual time for shops elsewhere.

 

A shop called "Save As," selling all kinds of old things in the 1970s and 1980s. including long-playing record, old metal clocks, antique notebooks and boxes etc. which were common several decades ago.

 

 

A dessert shop called "Cup Dessert" on the west side of Wudaoying Hutong. It was before the opening time, and a group of workers were building a new shop just beside it.

 

 

In front of a shop called "Nengmao Store" on the east side of Wudaoying, two young foreigners were passing by, which is actually commonplace in this ancient Chinese hutong.


Since 2001, bars and restaurants owned by foreigners have begun to emerge in the vicinity of Wudaoying hutong. Many of them retain traditional Chinese elements in their bars, though they differ in the degree.


Marcus, for example, is one of these foreign owners. He opened up a typical Greek restaurant named "Argo Restaurant" in a very "Chinese" yard two years ago. The international cultural atmosphere in this hutong is quite valuable to him. "Hutong belongs to China, of course, but meanwhile it also belongs to the whole world," he said. He wishes to "see different cultures integrated" so that they can develop together.

 
Indeed, after a plan to create a "Capital Culture District" was approved by Dongcheng District in 2008, many gradual changes have taken place in hutongs including Wudaoying hutong, and Marcus is a witness of such changes. When he moved to Wudaoying in 2009, there were only two other foreign shops besides his "Argo," but now foreigners from seven or eight countries have started their business there.


In Marcus’ eyes, these shops or bars will have no negative influences on this hutong. On the contrary, they are more likely to help retain the ancient constructions. "With the blending of different cultural elements, they will bring about a new integrity," he explained. Therefore, those stores are much better than "the cluttered or badly transformed houses."

 
But the commercialization, especially the so-called "foreignization," cannot be regarded as entirely positive. Since not all residents rented their houses out, some profit-related conflicts have also emerged. Marcus has noticed that foreign shops, like his,  seem to be unwelcome by the remaining neighbors. Although they do not complain in front of him, he can feel some "sense of distance or estrangement."


Actually, besides Wudaoying, many hutongs in Beijing also follow this commercialized trend. Though new shops and stores in these hutongs have given rise to prosperity, they have also brought new problems, especially the conflicts between traditional life styles and the opening up of new business in hutongs.


Guo Jianwei, a hutong resident in Dongcheng District for over ten years, has just witnessed the opening of "more and more shops" near her home. Though she agreed that these shops did help promote tourism in the vicinity, yet she pointed out that "they have made life in hutongs less calm."


As hutongs in Beijing have been built as a place to live in since Yuan Dynasty, the vitality of a hutong lies largely in its residents and their special lifestyles. However, in this modern era, visitors are always curious about the living conditions of current residents in the ancient architecture.


A visitor Yuan Tiantian, who has been to many commercialized hutongs in Beijing, such as Nanluoguxiang and Yandaixiejie, expressed her concern. Recollecting her experiences in these hutongs, she showed her positive opinions on commercialization, but she still doubted “the conditions of original residents”, as she saw fewer and fewer residential houses there.


Fortunately, the conditions of these inhabitants are not ignored in the restoration plans. As early as in 2005, the Executive Meeting of China's State Council approved the "Comprehensive Urban Planning of Beijing from 2004 to 2020." According to this plan, demolishing or reconstructing ancient buildings on a large scale is forbidden. Besides, the property rights of the old houses should be clarified and residents are encouraged to renovate their own houses.


However, some experts doubt the effectiveness of this plan in its protection of the already severely damaged hutongs and courtyards. One of them is the famous active protector of hutongs — Hua Xinmin, a French Chinese born in a Beijing hutong.


When Hua received an interview by the website "Urbanization" in 2009, she expressed her disappointment towards the 2005 plan. In her view, the regulation that residents should be the center of the renovation was "hardly carried out." Since many private house owners could not get the certificate to renovate, she said, "they have to wait passively for others to pull down their houses!"


Meanwhile, even the private renovation is possible, problems exist. "Our government only focuses on how to obstruct but not how to ‘channelize’ the issue." Professor Chen Guangzhong, the author of several books on the historic residences of celebrities in Beijing, pointed out. "Residents need advice and professional guidance in the transformation of their houses," he added.

 

In Chen’s eyes, Beijing will not be "complete" without these hutongs, because they are the "roots" of this city. But he also pointed out that it is impossible to restore hutongs and courtyards to their "original appearance," and actually there is no need to do so. The most urgent thing is to stop "all the pulling down of old houses" before evaluating which should be protected and how to protect them.

 
"What exists now is already history," Professor Chen said. "The biggest enemy of protecting hutongs is not commercialization, but the ruthless pulling down in the name of modernization."

 

 

Reported by: Li Yangminhui and Shangguan Wenqi

Edited by: Chen Long and Cao Yixing