Hutong Vs. Highrise: A Photo Essay On China's Radical Urban Changes

Illustration for article titled Hutong Vs. Highrise: A Photo Essay On Chinas Radical Urban Changes

Beijing is one of the earliest still-existant cities planned around a grid: the old city is organized around a chessboard-like matrix of alleys, known as hutong, that date back at least a millenium. But as developers in Beijing scramble to built modern towers in the urban core, hutong are disappearing.

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German photographer Christopher Domakis has made it his business to document them. Domakis spent three months in China earlier this year, and during his stay, he ended up photographing dozens of hutong, documenting the narrow, centuries-old alleys and corridors as he ran across them. He also traveled widely throughout other Chinese cities, documenting the construction of hundreds of new towers.

According to a report from The Atlantic, over 600 hutong were razed every year during Beijing's boom in the 1990s:

Seemingly overnight, the city was transformed from a warren of Ming dynasty-era neighborhoods into an ultramodern urban sprawl, pocked with gleaming office towers and traversed by eight-lane highways... Remaining hutong dwellers are worried, and for good reason—they have a lot to lose. Their courtyard houses have survived centuries of war and revolution, the strain of collective ownership, and the turbulence of early economic reform. Passed down from generation to generation, they are often last-remaining monuments to entire family lines.

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After an international outcry—precipitated by the destruction of hundreds of hutong to make way for the 2008 Olympic village—preservation groups are seeking to protect what remains—though it's unclear how successful they'll be.

Domakis' images throw this radical urban transformation into relief. In the 1200s, Marco Polo described Beijing as "laid out in squares like a chessboard with such masterly precision that no description can do justice to it." In a way, he probably would've enjoyed the modern-day Beijing: there's still plenty of masterly precision at work here—but unfortunately, it's to the detriment of the old city. [Christopher Domakis]

Illustration for article titled Hutong Vs. Highrise: A Photo Essay On Chinas Radical Urban Changes

Hutong in central Beijing from the air.

Illustration for article titled Hutong Vs. Highrise: A Photo Essay On Chinas Radical Urban Changes
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Illustration for article titled Hutong Vs. Highrise: A Photo Essay On Chinas Radical Urban Changes
Illustration for article titled Hutong Vs. Highrise: A Photo Essay On Chinas Radical Urban Changes
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Illustration for article titled Hutong Vs. Highrise: A Photo Essay On Chinas Radical Urban Changes
Illustration for article titled Hutong Vs. Highrise: A Photo Essay On Chinas Radical Urban Changes
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Illustration for article titled Hutong Vs. Highrise: A Photo Essay On Chinas Radical Urban Changes
Illustration for article titled Hutong Vs. Highrise: A Photo Essay On Chinas Radical Urban Changes
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Illustration for article titled Hutong Vs. Highrise: A Photo Essay On Chinas Radical Urban Changes
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Illustration for article titled Hutong Vs. Highrise: A Photo Essay On Chinas Radical Urban Changes
Illustration for article titled Hutong Vs. Highrise: A Photo Essay On Chinas Radical Urban Changes
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Illustration for article titled Hutong Vs. Highrise: A Photo Essay On Chinas Radical Urban Changes

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DISCUSSION

Great stuff. I lived in Shanghai from 1991 on and off, often going back to visit in between residencies, and I grew up with the city, from having 5 skyscrapers and tons of old-Chinese and soviet style homes and residences to a modern megapolis (Pudong was a giant farm when I first arrived; they built the equivalent of a Manhattan there since.) To us outsiders who have more of a romantic view of what China should be, the destruction of "old Shanghai" (and old Beijing) was lamented, and we often wondered why more of an attempt wasn't made at renovating and restoring. The old lane style houses and hutongs have been around for centuries, and were the meeting places for many of the families who had been there for generations. Often times, several families shared a series of buildings, so that, socially, a child had more than one set of parents and siblings; community was focused on these neighborhoods, and, the Chinese being very gregarious, it was an open community. The way we saw it, destroying these buildings would inflict harm upon one of the main social institutions in China.

The locals didn't necessarily see it that way. They saw old buildings, dilapidated, bereft of modern conveniences, such as plumbing. They also saw a reminder of an old China, one they had been trying to put behind them for decades now. For them it was time to modernize and move up, a way to take part in the massive modernization and reformation that was happening in China. To them, their old homes were a paycheck and a ticket to a better life. Indeed, I've met some locals in Shanghai who got rich overnight because they happened to have a home in a desirable location. To a lot of them, sentimentality wasn't that big of a deal; decades is a blink of the eye to a country with a 2500 year history, and 50-year development plans.

Of course, relocation isn't a smooth process, and while many were happy to move up, many also weren't, and their voices are being heard. There's been more of an effort to at least try to preserve a few old neighborhoods, but I fear most of them are just re-creations (ala Xintiandi in Shanghai) rather than the real thing. More effort has been expended in preserving some of the grander old buildings, such as those along the Bund or the western mansions of the French Concession. However, most of these old family style homes are gone. Depending on who you ask, that's either bitter or sweet.