New Beijing eclipses old

Ancient ways of life are left behind

Beijing 2008

Two Weeks To Go

July 27, 2008|By Rick Maese | Rick Maese,Sun Reporter

BEIJING - Every other month or so, Philip Lin packs his suitcases, grabs his passport and travels from one home to another. As head of China Business Development for T. Rowe Price, Lin routinely shuttles between his office in downtown Baltimore and Beijing, the city where he was born, where his parents still live, and a place that seems wholly different every time he visits.

"I've personally witnessed the metamorphosis," Lin says.

Over the past two decades, Beijing has undergone drastic change on a scale that has outpaced any other modern city. The 2008 Olympics provided the fuel for even more accelerated progress, while also serving as a looming deadline. At the opening ceremony next month, China will unveil a new Beijing to the world, one rich in culture, one swathed in prosperity and one that bears little resemblance to Lin's childhood memories.

Lin remembers a city with its own rhythm, its own personality, its own inimitable fingerprint. Old men playing checkers roadside. Bicycle vendors selling goods - from coal to fresh chicken. Women inviting neighbors into their courtyards for a cup of hot tea.

"That's the Beijing I remember," says Lin, 47. "That's the Beijing that had its own unique flavor."

When China won the Olympics bid in 2001, government officials wanted to transform a city known for arts, culture and history into a modern-day metropolis, an economic heavyweight. So they essentially sketched out a new city map and laid it right on top of the old one. Ever since, destruction and reconstruction have happened simultaneously.

But what of the old Beijing?

Historic neighborhoods along ancient roads, called hutongs, once stretched from Tiananmen Square more than a mile in every direction. Tiny dwellings with shared courtyards and a labyrinth of narrow alleyways kept neighborhoods tight-knit. With family-owned businesses filling out the communal patchwork, the centuries-old design, distinct to Beijing, was a testament to functionality, if nothing else.

Now 70 percent of the hutongs that existed only 50 years ago are gone.

According to the Geneva-based Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions, 1.5 million Beijing residents have been displaced in preparation for the Olympics. Only 2,700 were displaced in Athens, host of the Summer Games four years ago, according to the same report. An average of 60,000 Beijing homes per year has been demolished since 2006.

On a historical timeline, it's finger-snap gentrification. Ou Ning, a sociologist and filmmaker, characterizes it in simple terms. "If a city wants to develop, you have to sacrifice something," he says, "and this is the cost of change in Beijing."

The push and the pull of new versus old is taking place on nearly every street corner.

Even as Chinese leaders boast of their preservation efforts, many worry about a vanishing way of life. Already, lower-income Chinese have been transplanted from their aging family homes near the city center to high-rise apartments closer to the outskirts of town and, along with them, their traditions and routines.

As Beijing rushes to modernize and its traditional way of life is bulldozed and replaced with big business and 21st-century architecture, the city must decide just how much of its historical and cultural identity it will hold onto.

"We use a metaphor to explain this," says Wang Hui, executive deputy director of communications for the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games. "Beijing is like a growing kid. It would grow up anyway, but this is just helping it to grow up much faster. It was inevitable that Beijing was going to develop. It was going to happen with or without the Olympic Games."

Amid the hutongs southwest of Tiananmen Square, a young couple bats a badminton shuttlecock back and forth in the dirt roadway. A few feet away, Wang leans against the wall, a cigarette dangling from his lower lip.

"Those people who come to Beijing, they're just here to earn a living," he says, the tip of his cigarette turning red. "It is not their responsibility to maintain our culture or to care about our city. I don't like the people, and they're taking away the culture that Beijing has spent years and years building."

Like many fearful of government retribution, Wang won't reveal his last name. He's 54 years old and lives in a home that's bigger than most - 160 square feet. He has lived here since he was a child, but for how much longer, he's not sure.

He scurries inside his home, emerging seconds later, waving a pink piece of paper. It's an eviction notice, posted recently on the home of a lifelong friend. His neighbors have been lured away by developers or forced out by their government. Wang doesn't want to leave, but every day, he says, he's just waiting for a knock on the door.

"Please come back," he says to a visitor, stamping out his cigarette. "It's near. They're coming for me next."

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