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.

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This video has also been split into three smaller parts that can be viewed independently here:

CHAPTER ONE - A Disappearing World: vimeo.com/19122141

For many residents, hutong life is all they have ever known, and their memories and lives are intertwined strongly with the old streets and alleyways. Yet as time has gone by, many of the courtyards have become overcrowded and the buildings themselves have deteriorated. Despite the cultural heritage of the hutongs thousands of them have been razed in the past decades to make way for urban development destroying centuries of history and contributing to the shrinking of the remaining hutong space.

CHAPTER TWO — David vs. Goliath - vimeo.com/19324494:

While hutong residents may not have the easiest lives, few want to leave the streets and alleyways they have long called home. However, with China’s current legal system offering few avenues of discourse it is hard for residents to save their homes after they have been slated for demolition. Some are torn down to make way for new subway lines but, increasingly, a large number are simply torn down to be replaced by large high rise buildings that primarily benefit the land developers and local officials.

CHAPTER THREE — Beyond the Alleys: vimeo.com/19341584

If Beijing’s hutong areas are to be retained in one form or another, decisions need to be made about whether to invest money in keeping the original structures or replacing them with replicas built in the same style but offering modern amenities – a move that many suggest destroys the soul of the buildings. While for former hutong residents forced or happily leaving their old homes, a new way of life beckons.

For more information on this project visit:
blog.jonahkessel.com/the-fate-of-old-beijing/

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