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Helping hand for hutong
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Right: The entrance of a courtyard at Dongsi Qitiao before the refurbishment project. Liu Hui  Left: Jin Dajun and his wife air clothes at the newly-refurbished courtyard of Dongsi Sitiao No 59. Guan Xin


Watching the workers unload furniture from the truck into her house, 60-year-old Yang Li smiled in contentment.


"My biggest wish has been fulfilled," says the bespectacled old lady while examining her refurbished bungalow.


The courtyard of Dongsi Sitiao No 59 in Beijing's Dongcheng District was built in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), where Yang has lived for nearly half a century.


The last overhaul of the house that Yang can remember was in 1978, after the Tangshan earthquake that killed some 240,000 people in North China and ruined an entire city near Beijing.


As time passed, the house became too rundown to live in. "When it poured outside, there was a shower inside, and we had to call the housing management office at midnight."


Using water and electricity posed another problem. In Yang's courtyard there were five households, all of who shared one electrical meter and one water meter. "Disputes occurred whenever we would have to pay electricity and water fees," she says.


Another hutong resident Chen Yuying, 56, from Kusuijing No 56 Xicheng District, has had similar problems. "The old name of this area a century ago was a good reflection of our life: bitter water well," she jokes.


But Chen was reluctant to leave. "Compared with bungalows, I don't like living in buildings where neighbors keep a distance from each other," she says, adding that in a courtyard, all households were like a big family, in spite of the occasional dispute.


Skyrocketing house prices are another concern. "The price of apartments in this area is about 20,000 yuan ($2,766) per sq m. I would have to move to the outskirts."


Chen was told about the renovations by the government last September. "They told me that they would foot the bill, and I could hardly believe it at first."


The retired accountant, together with her parents and husband, moved in with her neighbor whose house is to be refurbished later, while their 26-year-old son rented a house. Two-and-a-half months later, they moved back, and were startled to see the 80-sq-m house rebuilt with the original bricks, a repaved floor, separated meters and a new toilet.


In 2007, the Beijing municipal government earmarked 1 billion yuan for the refurbishment of ancient courtyards in the downtown Dongcheng, Xicheng, Chongwen and Xuanwu districts. Work on 1,474 courtyards in 44 alleys, affecting 9,635 households, will be finished by the end of June, according to the Beijing Municipal Commission of Urban Planning.


For those houses that stand on State-owned property, residents don't need to spend a cent for the work, while private house owners have to pay a small fee of several hundred yuan per sq m.


No traditional houses will be torn down and construction of new buildings will be strictly controlled, says Kong Fanzhi, director of the Beijing Municipal Administration of Cultural Heritage.


Before the refurbishment, a courtyard at Dongsi Qitiao, Dongcheng District is shabby and crowded. Wang Wenlan


"Beijing boasts a history of 3,000 years as a city and more than 800 years as a capital," Kong says. "It represents the zenith of city construction in ancient China, in which hutong (alleys) and courtyards were the cells. Therefore, the city should be protected as a whole."


How to protect Beijing's ancient houses, or whether it is worthwhile saving them at all, as has been debated by officials for more than 60 years. During this time, fancy buildings mushroomed in the 62.5-sq-km area and gray brick residential houses collapsed before bulldozers in a facelift frenzy.


According to a report by the People's Daily in January last year, over the past three decades the number of Beijing's huntong had fallen from over 3,000 in the early 1980s to the current figure of 500.


In 2002, local officials marked out 25 urban areas where traditional houses and alleys would be preserved, later expanding the number to 33 areas, or 29 percent of the inner city.


Although real estate developers had built courtyard-styled houses, the move didn't seem to be welcomed.


"The 'fake cultural heritages' were too costly for local residents," says Xu Pingfang, a 77-year-old professor of archaeology and director of the China Archaeological Society. "While Beijingers are forced out and the houses are purchased by the newly wealthy, Beijing is losing its flavor."


Hailing urban heritage protection as a "great breakthrough", Xu is optimistic about the future. "Fortunately it is not too late," says the excited professor, "such 'micro-recycle' patterns preserving both the house and the people living in it deserve promotion all over China."


Xie Chensheng, an 84-year-old professor of cultural heritage protection and a consultant to the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, says the measures are "practical and sensible".


"The houses are of an ancient style, while people's lives have changed dramatically through the centuries. How to balance protection of the houses and improvement of people's lives has been a lingering problem."


But according to Cao Yuejin, a member of the Beijing Municipal Commission of Urban Planning, protection is just the first step.


"We encourage some people in the inner city to move out," he says, adding that relocation is optional. "The encouragement includes compensation and access to low-cost housing."


A report by the China News Service suggests that the population in the inner city is about 1.8 million. That puts urban population density three to five times higher than that in major Western cities like London and New York. But easing the strain on the city center takes time.


"Facilities, especially educational institutes and hospitals, in the outer city should be well developed so as to ensure a better life for people there," Kong Fanzhi says.


"I hope foreigners will not only visit the Forbidden City, but also spare some time to take a stroll in the old hutong, so that they can have a deeper understanding of Chinese culture."


(China Daily February 15, 2008)


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