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Battle of the Hutong
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Tree-lined Dongsi Batiao hardly looks like the site of a smoldering urban struggle. But during the last two months, the "Eighth Hutong in the Dongsi area" inside central Beijing's old inner city has not been so quiet.

On April 15, the Dongcheng District housing construction and planning bureau posted a notice in the neighborhood stating that a real estate developer has gained the development rights of the area and residents shall move with relocation compensation by May 26. Someone has splashed the poster with tar.

Dongsi Batiao is one of the historic neighborhoods given preservation status by the Beijing municipality's 2002 Conservancy Plan for 25 Historic Areas in Beijing Old City.

Hu Xinyu, managing director of the NGO Cultural Heritage Protection and its volunteer Friends of Old Beijing, points out that under the plan, renovation must be in accordance with set rules and hutong must be preserved. Commercial development is out.

But the Dongcheng District's housing construction bureau's order to move tells a different story.

It is reported that redevelopment of the area was originally approved by the municipal urban planning bureau in 2001. With a total investment of 570 million yuan ($74.5 million), plans include a high-rise office building and four residential buildings.

But that's not all. According to Xia Jie, whose family owns house No 11, a neighbor, checking with the district housing bureau, found a stamped document stating that a road 20 meters wide will be built through the neighbor's property.

Farther down the hutong past some shops, a corner store whose owner has recently moved has been gutted - roof ripped off, walls bashed in. It was taken by some residents as warning of things to come by the Zhong Bao Jia Ye development company.

The battle lines are drawn between the district housing construction bureau, the developer and some of the hutong residents pitted against Batiao residents who own their siheyuan (traditional courtyard houses) and heritage experts.

Batiao is not your designer hutong. Built in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), its glory days - when it was home to writer Ye Shengtao (1894-1988) - are long gone. Behind the siheyuan gates, many of the once grand courtyards are filled with makeshift shacks. Even for people living in the original gray brick buildings, hutong living can be primitive, with toilets out in the alley and no central heating.

Of the 11 courtyard houses with a motley mix of some 90 families, seven houses are privately owned and four belong to the local district. Many who don't own their residences and whose housing was arranged by the local district, are willing to move on, providing they get what they consider fair compensation. In contrast, those who have been there for generations want the preservation status of the hutong secured.

Those who would demolish this hutong argue that it contains nothing of cultural value. Those who would save it point out that the traditional one-story siheyuan architecture, with its gracefully curving roofs, will disappear along with the community way of life. Both merit preservation.

Tenants have dinner inside the courtyard owned by Xia Jie's family.

In No 3 yard, Gao Changling, 68, said: "If this hutong survives, I will definitely rebuild my home as it was." She sees Old Beijing's hutong as "dikes around the Forbidden City". She's been connected to her siheyuan since her mother-in-law bought it in the 1950s. As she talks, her son's 11-year-old turtle roams around the yard.

A man on crutches who would only identify himself as Gao said he was troubled by the dangers of out-of-control trees, unreasonably low compensation, and on-again, off-again development. When it comes to preservation, he says: "I think these courtyards should have been removed long before. They are too old." As for his neighborhood credentials: "I was born here, I lived in this hutong for more than 40 years and I do have an emotional attachment to it. However, I can do nothing about the big tree." The rampant roots caused a wall in the Gao home to collapse inward 10 years ago and he says the danger of structural damage is only increasing.

As for relocation, he says: "People living in narrow spaces would love to move. For example, a couple in our yard lives in a building only 8.5 square meters wide and that's still not the smallest. I think most residents support relocation if they can get reasonable compensation. I think it ought to be more than 30,000 yuan ($3,400) a square meter at least, instead of the 8,090 ($1,050) the developers offered. If I think what they offer is not acceptable, I'll stick to living here."

As for the possible outcome, he says: "This is the third time the developers have considered the project. The first time they came was in 2000. They copied all our identity and property certificates in 2002 and then everything stopped for some reason."

Xia Jie, 33, is a particularly articulate advocate for preservation. Slim, attractive, a fourth-generation Batiao resident, she traces the family's ownership from her great-grandmother's purchase of the house in 1948 to the ravages of the "cultural revolution" (1966-76). Xia Jie said the government took away the deed to the house, restricted her mother and herself to 12 square meters of living space, and moved in other people in need of housing.

The government returned the deed in 1984. Now she is determined to make sure the law is properly followed when it comes to the hutong's future. Concerned that "all necessary legal procedures" be followed, she has requested an administrative review by the Dongcheng District law office.

Perhaps feeling the heat of preservationists' and public outrage reflected in media coverage, Dongcheng District officials let the May 26 deadline come and go. On May 27, they suspended demolition. On May 28, Shan Jixiang, director-general of the State Administration for Cultural Heritage, stated during a working conference: "There will be no new development project in Dongsi Batiao in the future." There maybe no local victories to celebrate come China's Cultural Heritage Day on Saturday.

Those who know the articulation of State/local power say the State Administration of Cultural Heritage is not the deciding force here.

Meanwhile, the developer was reportedly negotiating compensation with people staying in the publicly owned courtyard housing. And Xia Jie was saying: "I'll wait for the results of the administrative review."

She says it's not about money but a way of life. She makes the point: "It's a sad thing if the developer wants to put a price tag on something we really cherish."

(China Daily June 4, 2007)

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