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Confronting change in Beijing’s historic hutong alleyways

Any hutong home with more than one story had to go, which meant my landlord’s home would be demolished

Roughly one Saturday afternoon per month, my landlord comes over to ask how I’m doing and drink my tequila. He pours it into a wine glass, then chugs the whole thing in one go.

This is fairly standard drinking protocol in China, the only country in which rates of binge-drinking peak among middle-aged men. What is unusual here is the choice of tequila over the local liquor, baijiu. And the fact that it’s mine.

Lao Liu is my landlord in Beijing, but he seems to have confused renting me an apartment with adopting me. I like this about him. He is proof that dads will be dads no matter where they are in the world. He scolds me when I don’t clean out the fridge often enough. He repeats the same stories over and over again. His son bought him a nice DSLR camera one year, but he doesn’t know how to get the photos off of it, so when he wants to show them to me, he just flicks through them on the camera’s tiny screen. He has many photos of himself holding parrots. I am not sure why.

Lao Liu likes to reminisce about the ’90s, showing me Polaroids of him with a full head of hair standing with various government officials who, though I don’t recognize them, he assures me are important. Oh, and he also owns a pet Australian sea turtle. He’s growing very quickly and will need a larger tank soon.

I often struggle to understand Lao Liu—my Chinese is middling, and his Beijing accent is thick. But Lao Liu has been tremendously kind to me, so when he drops in and gazes longingly at the bottles I’ve muled over in suitcases from the States over the years, I figure it’s the least I can do. We raise our glasses together, and then he says the English word I taught him: “Cheers.”

I met Lao Liu when I first visited my current apartment, a sectioned-off wing of his home in the hutongs of central Beijing, the traditional alleyways, some of them nearly a thousand years old, that make up the old city.

Hutongs can be architecturally dour from the outside—concrete walls with only tiny windows peeking through, occasionally broken up by a public restroom full of squat toilets—but the exteriors conceal variety. Some addresses have been converted into cheap dormitories for migrant workers. Others have been renovated into high-end homes and boutique hotels. These are often right next to each other, indistinguishable from the outside.

Beyond the old city, Beijing is a grid of mammoth gray boulevards, lined on both sides by austere, Communist-style blocks hastily built in the latter half of the 20th century. This is what makes the hutongs so special—they make a megalopolis of 23 million people feel quiet and small. Within the alleys, the hard edges of city living fade into the predictable routines of a small community.

Lao Liu’s home surrounds a modestly sized, well-tended courtyard, which is flanked by bedrooms. I rent the one off the back. Lao Liu has lived in the two-story apartment at the front for decades. Or he did. Until recently.

One September morning I walked out of the house to find a notice on the door. I couldn’t read it, but I recognized the character 拆, chai. Demolish.

Asking Lao Liu about the notice was the first time I’d seen him short on words. “Mei shi,” he said brusquely, annoyed that I was even asking. It’s nothing.

I’d seen the same note on other doors when reporting on an initiative Beijing sometimes called a “cleanup of illegal constructions,” and other times a “citywide beautification campaign.” What that meant was: The city was bulldozing entire streets and homes. Authorities and construction crews were evicting residents and business owners with a mere two weeks’ notice, sometimes not even bothering to alert store owners before taking hammers to doors and windows. Police, both uniformed and plainclothed, milled around construction sites to intimidate anyone inclined to object. In a country where dissent is not a right, most wouldn’t object anyway. They just dealt with it.

The city’s aim, on paper anyway, was to restore the hutongs to their original appearance, which meant any hutong home with more than one story had to go. My room was fine, because it was on the ground level. Lao Liu’s bedroom, however, was on the second floor.

But the notice had not specified a date of demolition, or even how much would be demolished. All month long, I heard the sound of drilling and sawing from my bedroom, but the construction crews had yet to make their way to us. We still had no idea which day they’d arrive.

One October morning, I shuffled out of my bedroom to see two men installing bamboo rafters in our courtyard. Lao Liu shrugged and said I’d have a big new rooftop terrace someday where his old apartment used to be.

And then the next time Lao Liu and his wife had me over for dumplings, his second floor was gone.

All that remained was his small foyer. The bed was squeezed next to a chair and a table, with barely any room to walk between them. The turtle flopped around in his tank, which just fit between the bed and the wall. His wife—who has never introduced herself to me by name but has only asked me to call her ayi, or auntie—sat cross-legged on the bed, holding a bowl of dough in her lap while making dumplings; there was no room for chairs. Lao Liu placed fresh dumplings on my plate. The whole scene felt oddly mournful, like we were at one of those funerals that’s trying too hard to be a “celebration of life.” Lao Liu started toasting with bowls of wine from the shiraz he’d pulled out of his freezer.

The next week, they were gone. Construction crews had covered their front door with bricks, and it was the final straw. Without saying goodbye, they packed all their belongings and left. When I asked Lao Liu about it later, all he would tell me was “mei shi.”

He does have a point: He’s fine. Mei shi. He already owned another apartment elsewhere in the city (though he’d planned, as is tradition in many Chinese families, to give it to his son). It’s in one of those Brutalist concrete blocks, but it’s roomy, and the authorities aren’t threatening to tear it down anytime soon. He has taken photos of it with his fancy camera, and showed them to me on its tiny screen on his occasional visits back to his old courtyard. He could have kicked me out of my apartment to live there himself, but as a retiree, rent is his only income—plus, I like to think he likes me.

It’s tempting, when discussing someone born in Mao’s Beijing, to draw a sweeping conclusion here: that living in an authoritarian country is to always say “mei shi” in the face of dramatic, unfair changes. That saying “mei shi” is a coping strategy, because it’s all you can do. But I can’t say for sure what was in Lao Liu’s mind when he said it—after all, it was his way of stopping the conversation from going further. And I can’t ask further, because he won’t let me.

All I know is that “mei shi” was Lao Liu’s way of addressing the demolition of his home. And that I see him less since the change, and he has to drive 25 minutes on his scooter through traffic to get to the house now. But he still makes it over for tequila.

Noelle Mateer is a freelance journalist living in Beijing.