Preserving Beijing's old houses a big task

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Many of Beijing's remaining 3,000 siheyuan (courtyard houses) have seriously deteriorated and are now in poor condition. 

A sinuous, silver-white building looms in the background of hutong (alleyways) near the Second Ring Road of Beijing. This massive complex, Galaxy Soho, rises 60 meters high and connects a cluster of vast egg-shaped buildings of shops, restaurants and offices.

The address, No. 7A, Small Arch Hutong, hints at its past — a network of narrow alleyways and traditional courtyards ­— the lifeblood of Beijing.

In order to provide more "efficient" housing, many old neighborhoods in Beijing have been demolished. The capital's century-old compounds, siheyuan (courtyard houses), are disappearing little by little.

The cultural values that considered the building style historically important have been altered, viewed as outdated. For industrialization and modernization, many old courtyards were destroyed to make way for modern offices, shopping zones and other uses.

A report on Monday by the Beijing Youth Daily, an official newspaper of the Communist Youth League, pointed out that during the reign of the Emperor Qianlong (1735-96) of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), there were 40,000 siheyuan"in Beijing but now only 3,000 are left; half of the remaining houses have seriously deteriorated.

"It's not that we don't have laws and regulations on the protection of siheyuan, but the problem is how to implement them," says Yao Yuan, assistant professor in the school of government at Nanjing University.

He was named "Outstanding Figure for China's Cultural Heritage Protection" in 2010 by the China Culture Relics Protection Foundation.

In 2005, the State Council approved a document, "Urban Planning of Beijing (2004-20)," and stipulated that siheyuan in old districts should be protected and the demolition should be banned. Two years later, the government issued meticulous regulations on how to renovate the courtyard houses — everything from the structure to the appearance of the tile.

"Renovation of siheyuan has a long way to go, including that at first it needs much financial support from the government, especially to provide basic infrastructure — water pipes and electrical wires and much more. However, you can't expect the payback in a short time," Yao tells Shanghai Daily.

There is a question of whether any officials are willing to undertake this responsibility, given that no obvious achievement is apparent when his or her term is over.

"You can't let the greedy developers and corrupt officials work hand-in-hand to destroy our cultural heritage," says Simon Wang, a member of a grassroots NGO aimed at China's historic urban protection. Wang and his peers believe the legal rights of the original residents were disregarded.

At the end of Hujing Hutong, the widest hutong in Beijing, sits an ordinary courtyard. The corridors are covered with different wires while the ground is covered with black tarpaulin.

The east side of the courtyard, which used to be a garden, has been demolished. If not for the floral-pedant gate and red beams with sophisticated drawings, one would never guess this house is the former residence of Cheng Baochen, the teacher of Pu Yi, the last emperor of China.

Like this one at No. 33, Hujing Hutong, many of the siheyuan have become shabby and even a bit ramshackle, often having less delicate gardens, damaged roofs and courtyards containing shacks and often piled up with debris.

With Beijing's population boom, the government has arranged for many people to live in the siheyuan. Many families — sometimes dozens — crammed into one siheyuan is a very common scene.

Now many renters and owners of the siheyuan are sharing the courtyard with others while some live outside their siheyuan. Some hirers have even lost property rights, many of which were taken away during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76).

"Property right is the key to solve the siheyuan protection issue," Yao says.

According to "Urban Planning of Beijing (2004-20)," clear and defined property rights are contained in the regulations.

"This means the owners of the siheyuan can get back their property while other residents will be asked to leave the property. Government should relocate them with a new place to live," Yao explains.

Once owners establish the property right, they can renovate the place themselves or sell it to others to improve the condition of the property. Hundreds of the shabby siheyuan then can be renovated to their original style.

Another controversial subject is whether siheyuan should be commercialized. Some of the old courtyards have been renovated into boutique hotels and offices.

"A lot of people insist that siheyuan should be well-preserved that even a tile can't be changed. But after all, they are architecture, not antiques," says Hou Zhaonian, head of the Ancient Buildings Institute of the Municipal Bureau of Culture Relics of Beijing.

He says siheyuan was a creation of the agricultural era and its material or function can't fulfill modern living standards. So as long as the style or the look of the architecture doesn't seem radically different, changes are acceptable.

However, some insist their structure and interior decoration should be strictly preserved and used for non-profit purposes, such as museums.

Richard Li, 55, a Beijinger who now lives in the United States, came back last month and visited a boutique hotel and some museums of siheyuan.

"They are all nicely decorated and renovated, but it still feels weird for me. Without people actually living in, it lost the true taste of Beijing," he says.

"Commercialized old architecture loses its original charm somehow," agrees Yao, the Nanjing University professor. "Like Xintiandi in Shanghai, it doesn't attract me very much."

He adds that the government should encourage and motivate the residents to renovate the houses themselves by providing more support, such as infrastructure instruction.

An annal of detailed descriptions of nearly 1,000 siheyuan will be published soon. The directory compiled by the Office of Beijing Geographical History will provide the fullest record yet of the capital's most important dwellings before the modern era.

Tan Liefei, the office's deputy director and editor of the directory, says some of the siheyuan are well-preserved, with their structures complete and containing valuable ancient artifacts. "More than ten courtyards built in the Qing Dynasty were discovered in the mountains, all well-preserved," he says.

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