About 4 months ago I posted on my visit to Beijing and some shooting I did in the Beijing with my friend Jonah Kessel.  See my images from that day of shooting here. My shooting was just for fun and to burn some time while I was waiting on some answers about visa issues – also to visit the infamous Beijing hutongs I’d been hearing about since I first starting studying Chinese almost 8 years ago.

Jonah, on the other hand, had been working on this project for many months for the Asia Society.  A few weeks back his final films and multi media presentation were released for public viewing.  I was blown away by the quality of the video and how in-depth the interviews went with the Beijing citizens still living in the hutong districts.

I was so impressed that I asked Jonah to share a little bit on the blog about this project, specifically about the culture and feel of the districts as well as the future of the hutongs.

First, some background on the the history and controversy surrounding the hutongs taken from my previous post, The Hutongs of Beijing:

The hutongs in Beijing are extensive networks of narrow alleyways that traditionally made up the homes and neighborhoods of Beijing residents.  They still bustle with activity – shops everywhere, whole families sitting outside playing mahjong, old women bickering about whatever there is to bicker about, and old men wandering the alleyways looking for something to do.  These alleyways make up a huge portion of Chinese culture in Beijing.  Infact, they started showing up as early as the Zhou Dynasty (1027 – 256 BC).  Later in Beijing history, these hutongs served as administrative districts, much like modern day neighborhoods and city-based ‘districts.’  Walking through you can literally see how vast the hutong’s histories are.  I talked to several men who had lived in the hutongs their entire life.  ”Infact,” one man told me, “I don’t remember a time when our families didn’t live in the hutongs!”

Controversy has arisen recently surrounding the hutongs.  In some areas up to 75% of the hutongs that once existed have now vanished and been replaced with modern buildings and high-rise apartment complexes.  However, many of the areas that critics claim have been torn down due to over-zelous developers are actually just in ill-repair and have been torn down for safety reasons.  ”Some of these hutongs are just so old that they literally fall over!” a man told me while pointing at a pile of ruble that used to be a home.  The debate over the hutongs continues, and interestingly enough the loudest voices in the matter tend to be foreigners will little or no vested interest in the area other than that of perserving culture.

What Jonah had to say:

Having lived in many different parts of the world, Beijing will always hold a special place in my heart. It is truly unique – both on a China level and on a global level. Especially after having traveled quite extensively in China, the capital city has retained more of its character than many other first, second and even third tear cities.

And where you find this culture is in the hutongs, the area largely within Beijing’s second ring road.

Living in the old area of Beijing has taught me to appreciate it even more. Some of my favorite restaurants or areas I’ve discovered simply by wondering around. While the small communal alleyways wind around, the culture within them literally vibrates.

I find it interesting that while people are certainly unhappy about the construction and destruction going on, on a day-to-day life, people in China are so used to seeing construction sites – its almost like they don’t exist. People are building, debuilding and rebuilding everywhere in this country. An architect friend of mine told me earlier this week – in a single year a Chinese architect will build more square meters than a Western architect will do in his entire life.

So while education is increasing, the demolition continues. When Brian came to town, it was great to get to show him some of my favorite areas – but really just to get lost. I think getting lost and wondering aimlessly is the best way to understand the hutongs. The photos in the slideshow above are the stills I took that day while wondering with Brian. You’ll notice a couple of them actually made it into the films, which in some ways is representative of how a lot of the content came into place. Days and days of shooting over long periods of time and than an even longer period where Kit Gillet and myself pieced all of it together into what you see below.

While cultural heritage protection is important in China, its also important all over the developing world. We hope people see and share these videos and the messages make it far beyond China’s Great Wall.



Finally, I can’t encourage you enough to give these videos a watch.
Chapter One:

Chapter Two:

Chapter Three:

A Disappearing World, is part one of the three-part series “The Fate of Old Beijing: The Vanishing Hutongs.”

In the face of China’s rapid modernization, the world’s most populous country is struggling to preserve its cultural heritage, and nowhere is this more visible than in the ancient alleyways and courtyards of Beijing.

Once a ubiquitous feature of Beijing, the hutongs are more than simply housing; they are actually a way of life. Entire families live in single, crowded courtyards, often with no bathrooms. Yet despite the lack of modern amenities, the communal aspect to life within the hutongs means that few want to leave – even as their neighbourhoods are being demolished and redeveloped. UNESCO estimates that more than 88 percent of the city’s old residential quarters are already gone, most torn down in the last three decades.

In a three-part series, filmmakers Jonah Kessel and Kit Gillet explore the vanishing world of Beijing’s hutongs, the realities of life within the narrow streets, and the future for these culturally-irreplaceable areas of China’s capital.