Register Tuesday | December 7 | 2021

A Tale of Two Beijings

Beijing is at least two cities. There’s the Beijing of the hutongs, a largely low-slung, grayscaled cityscape lying along the occasionally meandering little streets one can find within the old city walls, a one to two kilometer radius of Tiananmen Square. Then there’s the rest of Beijing, a march of high and midrise office and apartment buildings that have both infiltrated the city of the hutongs and supplanted much of remains of Mao’s capital: the cheaply built factories and shambolic workers’ dormitories built beyond the old city.

There are pockets of modern construction all over Beijing’s historical core, but the incursion of the new Beijing into the old is only really consistent along the ten lane-wide route of Chang’an Avenue, the city’s ceremonial main east-west axis, which slices in half the heart of the city with flanks of flashy new banks and government office buildings. The rest of new Beijing lies out beyond the old city and its present outer limit: the Second Ring Road, Beijing’s innermost orbital expressway, which replaced hutong Beijing’s medieval defenses with a different sort of wall — one formed by bumper-to-bumper traffic.

It didn’t always seem as if this division would persist. Only a few years ago, the Beijing of the hutongs began disappearing at an alarming rate. The outcry among preservationists, though, was loud enough to slow large-scale demolition, and changes to the historic city have proceeded somewhat less rashly since; some hutongs that were spared the wrecking ball have even undergone gentrification. There are exceptions, of course. Limited demolitions still occur — to install new subway stations, for example. But large-scale redevelopment projects, like this year’s plans to wipe out the classic hutong neighborhood around the historic Gulou, or Drum Tower, have gone nowhere fast; after unusually intense local and global media scrutiny, the Gulou project was shelved indefinitely.

The slowdown of Beijing’s “modernization” has brought with it a stalemate between high-rise and hutong. It’s particularly evident in Xicheng, in the western part of the old city, where the shimmering but somewhat stumpy towers of Beijing Financial Street, intended to form the new commercial heart of China, rise awkwardly against a backdrop of some of the city’s dustiest laneways. And not far away, across the Second Ring Road, the chaotic streetlife of the hutongs has even found a foothold even amid the seemingly hostile, modern streets and plazas of the new city.


A hutong built for two: in the dusty streets of Xicheng

Cross the Second Ring Road over Fuchengmen Dajie and the contrasts can, at first, seem stark. On the eastern side of the highway, the street passes low-slung duck restaurants and dumpling houses. The centuries-old Buddhist White Dagoba Temple (also known as Baita Si or Miaoying Si) dominates the skyline, soaring over a warren of bustling backstreets stretching north. Not far beyond, though, and still on the same side of the Ring Road, the glass walls of Beijing Financial Street rise, marking off a hermetically-sealed and climate-controlled world impervious to the historic city.

Traipse a few blocks south, and the insularity of the intrusive new development becomes even more readily clear. Beijing Financial Street turns inward, to face a central courtyard, rather than out toward the avenues transecting the neighborhoods of hutongs. Its buildings are even more introverted still — clustering around the skylit but aloof corridors of shopping malls and hotel lobbies. Where the office suites of Beijing Financial Street does look out over the city, the juxtaposition must be jarring. One of Beijing’s Ritz Carlton hotels is here; some of its plush rooms gaze down at neighborhoods that still lack plumbing lines (a fact that may, at some point, still be used to justify these districts’ wholesale eradication).

Top and above: the stumpy towers of Beijing Financial Street cluster over the lowrise landscape of Xicheng

However much Financial Street appears to represent the depressing future of Beijing, though, it’s merely one superblock among many. Except for the flank of towers lining the Second Ring Road, the development is entirely surrounded by hutongs. And even on the other side of the highway, where developments of a kindred style predominate, they’re hardly impervious to infiltration from the vibrant streetlife and vitality of the hutongs. Fuchengmen Dajie on the other side of the Ring Road is lined by titanic malls and apartment towers, but its streets still buzz with vehicles that seem better scaled to the old Beijing: bicycles, tricycles, three-wheeled autorickshaw-like contraptions, in addition to gangs of pedestrians enduring its unwelcoming landscape of under- and overpasses.

The bicycles, too, are segregated from traffic, plying their own dedicated lanes on the side of the road. But this concession alone — these are not your ordinary cycle lanes, but full-scale, multilane boulevards for bikes akin to those used in the old city — speaks volumes about small, largely human-powered vehicles’ determined and resilient presence in this seemingly unfriendly part of the city. On this side of the Second Ring Road, outdoor marketplaces seem even more improbable, but they’ve sprung up under flyovers and inside clusters of vans that seem to cradle them like defensive wagon-circles (across town, in slightly less shabby Dongzhimen, they survive as carts that appear at rush hour to sell snacks to busy commuters).

Beyond the Second Ring Road, pedestrians traverse footbridges to cross the wide streets

A small street market operates out of vans under a flyover near the Fuchengmen metro station

Against this backdrop, it’s flashy Financial Street that appears wholly unlikely — and fully isolated. Surrounded by surviving — and sometimes thriving — hutong neighborhoods, and adjacent to a part of modern Beijing still tethered to the raffish rush of the old city’s streetlife, it’s unlikely the city’s commercial core will ever really weigh anchor for the area from the more prosperous, eastern parts of the city, home to the city’s skyscraping CBD and the swish embassy district of Sanlitun. In fact, Financial Street seems like an increasingly unlikely place for a branch office, let alone a Ritz. Its long-term survival as an outpost of corporate sterility would seem doubtful if it weren’t subsidized by the presence of some heavyweight state banks.

But the direction in which Beijing as a whole is heading is clear. The vast majority of people in Beijing Municipality now live in the modern city outside the area enclosed by the Second Ring Road: in the span of less than 20 years, the Chinese capital managed to sprawl to a Sixth Ring, and plans for a Seventh were, until recently, on the drawing board. (The First Ring Road — which probably took its name from an old inner-city tram loop — has long-since disappeared, replaced by a half-dozen different streets.)

Beijing’s circumferential highways have become so integral to its culture that a popular dating service uses a van plying the Third Ring Road as its chief venue. And as an endless stream of books and articles attests, car culture in China is increasingly entrenched. Even the expansion of the Beijing Metro could dim demand for serious bike lanes like the ones that extend past the Second Ring Road at Fuchengmen.

The new Beijing’s boulevards still make room for bikes, autorickshaws, and other small, motorized contraptions

As the city’s expansion redefines its overall pattern of urban development, a more fundamental shift in Beijing’s character may be likely as well. Persistent throngs of bikes, pedestrians, and of street markets beyond the Second Ring Road demonstrate that old Beijing’s urban culture is capable of surviving even in an alien landscape built and scaled for motor vehicles — for now. It’s notable that the survival of the city’s street culture is best illustrated directly across the highway from a surviving swath of hutongs — and probably only while, and if, the relative stalemate in the city’s assault on such old neighborhoods lasts.

In a city where the neighborhoods that foster bicycle transport and informal street markets are themselves increasingly isolated and marginalized, if not imperiled, the survival of such streetlife anywhere within its borders may be unlikely. The urban lifestyle present in the Xicheng hutongs may be winning small, guerilla skirmishes for the soul of Beijing, but it’s probably losing — if it hasn’t already lost — the war.

(From UrbanPhoto. Follow Szabla on Twitter.)

Related on

—Vancouver's Best Public Space
—When the Streets Were Swept by Hand
—I Dream a Highway

SubscribeFollow Maisy on TwitterLike Maisy on Facebook