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'Warriors' Protect Hutong with Cameras

They see themselves as warriors in a desperate battle to preserve old Beijing.

After arranging to meet online, about 20 people gathered at exit B of the Qianmen metro station one recent Sunday morning, exchanging stories and talking about the photos they were going to take.

The "warriors" are fans of hutong architecture and art, and Dazhalan a famous concentration of small lanes which once filled Beijing, in the Qianmen area of the capital is one of their favorite areas.

The targets of their cameras are ancient gates, courtyards, roofs and any detailed sculptures or paintings.

These pictures aren't intended for a photography contest, but rather a race against time to create a visual record of a piece of fading history.

They plan to collect their images in an online hutong museum.

According to media reports, the number of registered hutong in Beijing has shrunk from 3,600 in 1980 to about 1,200 today. And the number is still falling.

A government circular issued at the end of last year, the largest of its kind in terms of affected areas and number of people, said more hutong would be removed, news that stung supporters of hutong culture.

The announcement motivated Zhang Jinqi, the leader of the hutong "warriors," to begin compiling a photographic record.

Zhang grew up in Dazhalan, a 1.26-square-kilometre area of 114 streets and alleys. With more than 51,000 residents, it claims to be one of the most densely-populated residential communities in the world.

Hutong life nourished Zhang from his childhood, he said, explaining his passion for the tiny alleys.

"I still clearly remember the peaceful and harmonious residential surroundings in which people developed mutual understanding and close ties," he said.

"There was a 70-year-old granny, who was very kind and helped bring up neighbours' kids, guarded their doors and filled the coal stoves for each family while they were out working."

Memories like these are a reminder of the urgency to preserve the hutong, Zhang said.

But for some, the significance of Dazhalan's existence makes it worth more than a simple hutong protection campaign. In the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), it was a prosperous commercial district neighboring the Imperial Palace (The Forbidden City).

As the gathering place for banks, theatres, high-end entertainment lounges and dozens of century-old shops, Dazhalan witnessed the ups and downs of China's economic development and its people's lives for centuries.

That's why Zhang will never forget the painful memory about six years ago when he returned to Yanjia hutong in Dazhalan. "It was buried by bulldozers," he said.

Learning that the number of hutong in Beijing had decreased dramatically, Zhang quit his job as a copy editor in 2000 and devoted himself to preserving them and hunting for old photos.

He said that last year he took 40,000 photos capturing the hutong scenes in Dazhalan.

Now, Zhang takes pictures on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and develops the film and classifies the photos on Tuesday and Thursday. That's his entire life.

Fortunately, Zhang is not alone in his passion.

Volunteer photographers and people of all ages from all walks of life have been attracted by fascinating tales of the hutong, while others just want to help out.

Xue Yinong, 55, a retired public servant from Changchun, capital of Northeast China's Jilin Province, joined the team one Sunday on a mission to find more vivid hutong scenes and stories she had read about in books and seen on television.

"I've long been eager to visit Beijing's hutong, especially in Dazhalan area, where the famous eight hutong sit," Xue said.

She learnt about the hutong tour from her son, a netizen who is attempting to earn his doctorate in software design in Beijing. It was his invitation that made her travel more than 1,000 kilometres just to volunteer.

"I never expected that my long-awaited visit to the hutong would happen this way with a group of strangers, but it seemed as if we all knew each other even before we met," she said excitedly.

Sense of responsibility

As the spread of the old Beijing buildings lay before her eyes, Xue was touched by the spirit of the younger generation on the various teams.

"It's hard to believe there are so many young people who care that much and do so much research on hutong," she said.

But the photographers aren't shooting just Dazhalan.

Dozens of hutong in the Qianmen area is on the urban renewal blacklist, which has caused the teams to redouble their efforts.

"We are racing against time to take as many pictures as we can to preserve the original look of various hutong," said Zhang Wei, 29, who started the website www.oldbeijing.net, a platform where the teams gather and arrange their activities.

In his eyes, each house and yard differs from others in decoration and layout. From these characteristics, Zhang says he can tell the original resident's family status, ethnicity, and official rank in the imperial dynasties.

"Hutong in Beijing resemble blood vessels in human beings," he said. "Without hutong, how can we prove the capital's 3,000-year-old civilized history? The hutong has borne witness to that history in terms of the development of the city and the people.

In his eyes, hutong is as famous and attractive as the Summer Palace, the Great Wall and roast duck. But in comparison, he said, hutong deserves much more careful research.

"You can easily find out very detailed records and stories of the Summer Palace, Beihai Park and other royal facilities from books and documents, but there is no systematic documentation for hutong," said Zhang.

(China Daily July 4, 2006)

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