The hutongs surrounding the Drum and Bell towers (Gulou) have been home to Zhao Huiling for 63 years. As a girl, Zhao remembers the buskers and barefoot storytellers lined outside the historic tower. ‘The food, the magicians, the movie players of old Beijing – those are my memories of here,’ says Zhao, who now works as a community volunteer.
Soon, Zhao will have to say goodbye to her childhood home to make room for a revitalisation project aimed to recreate the Qing Dynasty square that once stood between the two towers. For more than five years, construction workers have been slowly tearing down the homes and shops around the Gulou area, forcing residents, many of whom are elderly, to relocate to high-rises in Shaoyaoju, northeast Beijing.
Around 136 households were ordered to move out by the end of February 2013, but most remained to elicit better compensation packages than the average 44,000RMB per square metre that they were offered – about half the market value, say estate agents. The average hutong home is between ten and 20sqm. The Government has been offering the new apartments at a discount of 7,000RMB per square metre to evicted residents, but some may not be able to afford the new flats since the compensation varies between households, and depends on how well residents bargained with the relocation officers.
A construction manager overseeing the project, surnamed Chong, sits in the midst of the rubble, hidden in his small makeshift office. He shows Time Out Beijing glossy marketing placards with graphic designs of what the area will eventually look like. ‘The Government plans to tear down some of the houses around the square and make it stretch a further nine metres on the east and west side,’ Chong says, pointing at a map to show how the residential area is unevenly spread.
Chong says the razing restarted in May and only concerns homes ‘illegally’ built by residents. ‘Yongdingmen, Qianmen, Tiananmen, Jingshan Park and the Drum and Bell tower form the axis line of old Beijing… by the time we finish the demolition and reconstruction process, we will be able to make the axis line more clear and balanced. We will also be able to protect the old buildings better,’ he says, adding that the new city square will be lined with trees, large lawns and renovated courtyard homes on the sides.
However, some residents fear that the beloved area will be stripped of all cultural authenticity and become yet another Qianmen – the gentrified shopping street south of Tiananmen Square that feels like a Disneyland version of old Beijing.
Jenny Wang, owner Excuse Coffee, says her café has been a staple outside the north gate of the Drum Tower for eight years. ‘All the houses in Zhonglouwan Hutong will be demolished. This hutong might not exist anymore,’ says Wang. ‘People love high-rises, but it’s not the soul of the city.’
She’s currently sharing a space with Zajia Lab on Doufuchi Hutong, not too far from her original location, but the closure was a sad departure for Wang and her husband who say they practically raised their three-and-a-half-year-old daughter there. ‘Every shop is in a different situation… we found a new place but some other people just closed their business,’ says Wang. ‘When the property is demolished, the contract is over.’
Wang moved into the new space in May and says she feels fortunate to find friends who were willing to open their doors to her – roughly 60 percent of businesses she knows of have now shuttered as they can’t find a new home. Last month, the beloved Drum and Bell Bar shut its doors, a casualty of the raze. Next door, Au Gulout co-owner Zhang Aijun is putting up a fight.
‘My landlord came today and asked me to leave. If I don’t, they say they will sue me,’ says Zhang, unfettered by the legal threat. His bar, often frequented by expats, opened around a year ago. Zhang said they signed a two-year lease and the landlord has not agreed to give them any compensation for the financial loss the eviction will cause. ‘We will try to find another space, but we’re not leaving yet,’ he says.
He Shuzhong, founder of the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Centre, says no one really knows if all the hutongs will be removed. ‘[The Government] thinks the Drum and Bell tower area is too messy, too small, too backwards… but how modern should the area be?’ asks He. He suggests that the Government is gauging public reaction before deciding how far to take the renovations.
As for Zhao Huiling, she says she loves her community, but putting up a fight feels pointless. ‘We like it here, and none of us want to leave. Now the state wants this land, so we should listen to the call of the nation.’