The Last Days of Old Beijing
Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed
by Michael Meyer (China 1995–97)
Walker & Company
June 2008
336 pages

Reviewed by Sam Stokes (Côte d’Ivoire 1963–65)

    The Last Days of Old Beijing is several stories woven together. It is the personal account of a former Peace Corps Volunteer who, in 2005, rents rooms in one of Beijing’s hutong neighborhoods, teaches English in the local primary school, makes friends with his neighbors, washes at the communal bathhouse, and plays pick-up hockey on the frozen moats of the Forbidden City. It is also a portrayal of neighborhoods destroyed, residents uprooted, and traditional businesses and local restaurants replaced by Wal-Mart, Starbucks, and Hooters; and it is the history of top-down urban planning in Beijing. Over the centuries most of the city, at one time or another, has been destroyed by fire, earthquake, invaders, and bureaucrats, and then rebuilt according to a new vision.
         Hutong are the narrow pedestrian-scale streets of old Beijing, dating to the thirteenth century. Hidden behind the plain gray walls that line the hutong are once-elegant courtyard homes, now subdivided and falling into disrepair. Yet they are part of a vibrant community, where neighbors know each other, adults look after each other’s children, and everyone patronizes local vendors. Beijing’s hutong are fast disappearing, prey to government plans to make the city a showcase of modern China and, in particular, to impress visitors arriving from around the world for this summer’s Olympics.
         Chinese citizens may own usage rights to the buildings they inhabit, but the land belongs to the state. The government has sold to commercial developers the rights to rebuild on much of Beijing’s land. Developers, whom many suspect to be in collusion with city officials, are forcing hundreds of thousands of long-time residents to move on short notice, offering paltry payments that supposedly allow hutong dwellers to buy elsewhere. But the only affordable options are apartments in nondescript housing blocks far from the center of the city — away from jobs, friends, and familiar routines.
         Meyer is at his best when he introduces us to his hutong neighbors, including his elderly landlady, “the Widow,” who makes sure he is well supplied with her steaming dumplings; “Recycler Wang,” who haggles over scrap paper and used bottles, and shows Meyer how he ekes out a living; soldier Liu, owner of a soon-to-be-closed shaved-noodle restaurant; Old Zhang, who refuses orders to move until he can get a better relocation price; Miss Zhu, Meyer’s fellow English teacher at the Coal Lane Elementary School; his earnest student, Little Liu, struggling to learn English so as to be better prepared to greet Olympic visitors; and Little Liu’s father, who raises pigeons, a hutong tradition that is banned in the new apartment blocks to which the family will soon have to move. We also meet Chinese intellectuals concerned about the destruction of the city’s past, but largely powerless to act.
         About the only people we don’t meet — and I would have liked to — are the faceless bureaucrats and developers responsible for painting the Chinese character for “raze” on the walls of buildings slated for demolition. “The Hand,” as the character is referred to locally, appears without warning, “like a gang tag, or the work of a specter,” presaging the community upheaval soon to come.
         A few hutong have been saved, but the restored or rebuilt residences, even when made to resemble the buildings they have replaced, lose much of their character when their former residents are forced out. While Meyer laments the destruction of historic neighborhoods, it is the passing of a way of life that disturbs him the most. Each year, as American chain restaurants make further inroads into China, fewer traditional foods are available in local eateries. The loss of customary amenities, and of networks of kinship and friendship, concern residents more than the loss of the buildings they have lived in — buildings that are often dilapidated, and lack plumbing and heat.
         Meyer writes: “Whenever I left the hutong, I missed Beijing. I missed not its tangible architecture, but the intangible lifestyle that navigated and lived within it. I missed things I didn’t know to appreciate at the time, such as commercial streets that invited strolling before the Hand invaded their space. Grandmothers gossiping outside at five in the morning. Men walking to the market wearing silk pajamas. Long meals outside around a steaming hot pot.” Meyer speaks eloquently to the near-universal Peace Corps experience of growing to appreciate the rich sense of community and the slower pace of life present in so many of the countries in which Peace Corps Volunteers have served.
         Redevelopment of historic neighborhoods is taking place the world over, but perhaps nowhere so rapidly as in China. Figuring out who is responsible for development or conservation, let alone having an impact on the decisions, is particularly challenging for those concerned with historic preservation in China. Meyer has painted a vivid picture of life in the hutong, and one can only hope that the Chinese authorities will come to realize that it is just as important to guard the cultural heritage of these communities as it is to protect the Great Wall and the Forbidden City.

    Sam Stokes has directed programs to protect natural areas and historic resources for the National Park Service and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. He is the principal author of Saving America’s Countryside: A Guide to Rural Conservation (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997). Sam has advised many American communities — and several African governments — on their heritage conservation programs. For the World Bank and UNESCO, he has helped train Chinese officials in heritage conservation.