Saturday, January 25, 2003

HOUHAI --Looking back to Beijing's future

Drum Tower and Bell Tower as seen from Houhai on a winter's day

(first published in the South China Morning Post, January 25, 2003)

by Philip J. Cunningham

Beijing needs look no further than its own backyard to find an environmentally friendly model for sustainable development. Keeping things green and on a human scale is a mounting challenge as China undergoes a demolition and construction spree that may fairly be described as the biggest building boom in the history of mankind. It’s the rare neighborhood that hasn’t been carved up by a big construction site.
Shiny office blocks and bulky residential towers sit astride twelve-lane thoroughfares, the epitome of modernization, a quick fix for developers in a rush to get a return on their capital.  The sad reality beneath the glitter of reflective glass and ornamental gateways is that “progress” has been achieved at the price of destroying traditional neighborhoods, where people once knew their neighbors, and replacing them with culturally dead satellite towns where people don’t have natural opportunities to interact except to exchange uncomfortable glances in cramped elevators or in parking lots.  Gone is any connection to nature or neighbor, instead one is housebound in an air-conditioned box without porches or a place to hang laundry far above a street without shops, separated from work and friends by an ever elongated commute. 
Then there’s Houhai, a holdout of understated good sense in the midst of the swirling madness of speculative building and senseless obliteration of the past.
Since the days of Marco Polo, the imperial lake district running from Jishuitan to Zhongnanhai in central Beijing has been a vital neighborhood, the haunt of retired Imperial officials, writers, artisans and working class folk. The lakes, hand-carved into Beijing’s arid landscape so long ago they look completely natural, provide pleasant vistas and establish a firm sense of place. A thickly settled residential area opens up to three inter-connected lakes rimmed by paved walkways and overhanging willows, stone bridges and low-rise tile roofed dwellings. Picturesque Yingding Bridge nestled between Front Lake and Back Lake, aligned with West Lake in the distance, has for centuries provided a tree-framed vista of the Fragrant Hills, perfect at sunset. The hills are still visible today, though distant high-rises and a bank of steel construction cranes now narrow the view.
What’s most remarkable about Houhai at this juncture in time is that it has suddenly become cutting-edge cool because of it’s stubborn continuity with the past, serving the cultural cravings of residents and visitors equally well. Marble arches, not golden ones, low rise not high, lanes and alleys, not highways.
As old Beijing is gobbled up by behemoth projects, the few remaining intact hutong neighborhoods increasingly bear the brunt of curiosity about the past, attracting tourists domestic and foreign like never before.  Houhai is no theme park, at least not yet, though the faux antique street under construction on the west shore of Front Lake suggests it’s only a matter of time, the development fallacy being that visitors would rather tromp through a fake neighborhood than a real one.
The tranquility of Houhai demonstrates that contrary to received wisdom, wide streets don’t alleviate traffic, they attract it; whereas the hutong, being hard to navigate, discourage most drivers, keeping the area quiet and the air relatively fresh. Back-street rickshaw rides and candle-lit cruises in oar propelled wooden boats complete with serenading musicians offer quiet, green activities consuming not a single watt of electricity.
Houhai doesn’t get the green bill of health in every respect, coal cakes are still hand fed into stoves to heat many smaller homes and restaurants and toilet technology got stuck somewhere in the Ming Dynasty. Where there are tourists, there are touts.  But the basic plan is good and the problems manageable; steam heat, modern plumbing and discreet remodeling could improve things without altering the look or function of the hutong.
The undeniable charm of seeing Beijingers of modest means unselfconsciously going about their lives –early birds exercising tai qi style under the trees, retirees tugging on a fishing line, kids romping around the playground, students skating on the frozen lake, polar bear club members stripping for a dip in the icy waters, local chess champs creaming the competition in sidewalk games, a lady taking clothes off the line, a man repairing bicycles, cooks working over blazing charcoal fires, middle aged couples going through ballroom steps under a street light— makes Houhai photogenic and worth a visit. There are restaurants serving cuisine ranging from Sichuan and Shaoxing to Hakka and Xinjiang and the lakes are dotted with quiet bars and cafes popular with couples. Even the abandoned night club –a legacy of an exuberant ex-mayor jailed for corruption—is easy on the eye as it was artfully designed in the style of a Qing Dynasty pavilion.
Too much tourism and the balance will be broken, too little and the cash flow that fends off demolition will dry up. For the moment the blend is about right, Beijingers generously share a vanishing way of life respectfully curious outsiders. It’s small, it’s beautiful, it’s traditional, it’s down to earth.  What could be more civilized than that? When will the urban planning czars figure out that people don’t come to Beijing to buy designer French handbags and American junk food in gargantuan Hong Kong style malls?
As I watch some kids horsing around on the shimmering surface of an iced lake brightened with a fresh coat of snow, a small, sprite woman tells me about her life as a newcomer to Houhai –she didn’t move into the neighbor until sixty years ago. We pause to watch a fleet of trishaws with bright red bunting slither towards Drum Tower and she then steers me to a local hole in the wall cafĂ© that can only seat three people at a time. So far, trendy tourism and neighborhood values co-exist happily in a working neighborhood where old buildings and old ways are cherished more than ever, where curious locals like to look at the curious visitors looking at them.