BEIJING - Song Guirong was fast asleep in her home when a thunderclap of splintering wood and falling chunks of concrete the size of dinner plates jolted her out of an afternoon nap. Tumbling out of bed onto the bare floor, she assumed she had just survived an earthquake.
When the dust settled, the real cause of the commotion became clear: A front-end loader dispatched by the municipality of Beijing had ripped off part of the roof of her house like a lid peeled from a tin can. It didn't matter that Song and her family had lived there more than 30 years. The city wanted them gone.
Their house, along with thousands of others, was falling victim to a municipal demolition and construction project being carried out on an almost unimaginable scale, an urban renewal program that has displaced hundreds of thousands of people as entire neighborhoods are razed.
In the past 12 years, more than 760,000 people in Beijing have lost their homes to the demolition crews, more people than live in Baltimore, Annapolis and Towson combined. In putting a modern face on China's ancient capital, a city of 14 million, the Communist Party has relied on the same bare-knuckle tactics that have helped keep it in power here long after communism's demise elsewhere.
The government, which treats urban planning like a matter of national security, often gives families no more than a few weeks' notice before demolishing their houses so that even those people foolhardy enough to challenge the decision have little time to organize. Residents who stand in the way have been crushed or bought off.
Officials like to claim that China has 5,000 years of history, but in leveling many of Beijing's oldest neighborhoods, the government has destroyed mile after mile of the labyrinthine alleys and old courtyard homes that were the capital's most distinguishing features.
In futile efforts to save their homes or defend neighbors, families have suffered beatings or risked jail. In the scramble for new, affordable housing to replace what they have lost, families have quarreled over government compensation and split up after decades of living under one roof. In some alleys, neighbor has turned against neighbor, brother against brother.
Demolition crews have targeted architectural treasures and destroyed shops that provided their owners their only livelihood. This boom of destruction and rebuilding is further fueled by the city's preparations for the summer Olympic Games of 2008, an event leaders here see as a stage for showing the world a modern, sophisticated capital. "The speed with which Beijing is being redeveloped is unprecedented," says Zhang Jie, a professor of urban planning at Qinghua University, the MIT of China.
No other city has seen such destruction in peacetime. It dwarfs Baron Haussmann's reshaping of Paris in the 1850s, when the city's grand boulevards were built; it is a far larger project than the construction of all the freeways of Los Angeles.
In the eyes of the municipality, Song's brick house stood in the way of progress.
Life in the "hutong"
She lived on a lane off South Small Street, in the heart of the capital's East City - prime real estate for the municipal government and politically connected developers. Several blocks to the west lie Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and the shopping district of Wangfujing, a pedestrian mall of chrome-and-glass department stores with a Starbucks and an Outback Steakhouse. Jammed with well-dressed crowds, the Wangfujing district generates the electricity of a great urban downtown. Were it not for the flashing neon signs in Chinese, it could be London or New York.
South Small Street is a narrow, two-lane road with an utterly different feel and a lived-in look. The air fills with the heavy smell of charcoal from kebab grills and the sweet scent of fresh peaches from fruit stands. Laundry hangs from lines wrapped around power poles along sidewalks filled with noodle restaurants, hardware stores and barbershops where prostitutes in 3-inch-high platform shoes masquerade as beauticians.
Radiating east and west off South Small like ribs from a spine were some of Beijing's meandering alleys, called hutong. The hutong have defined the city for more than seven centuries. Single-story houses made of gray brick line the lanes and are the architectural soul of the capital. They are also home to thousands of retirees and laid-off state workers who devoted their lives to building Mao Tse-tung's socialist dream.
Life is hectic, sometimes squalid, in Beijing's back streets. In recent decades many became slums. Multiple families cram into courtyard homes designed for just one and rely on foul-smelling public toilets. On summer evenings, neighbors sit outside, chatting and cooling themselves with hand-fans made from marsh reeds.