tale of two cities

The urban landscape in China is changing at an unprecedented rate. The market reforms put in place by Deng Xiaoping following Mao Zedong’s death have lead to the most rapid rise in living standards of the largest group of people in human history. However at the same time, for much of China’s rural population, the privatization of state-run factories, the evaporation of government subsidized agriculture and crooked land deals by local officials has lead to poverty and civil unrest.

According to an article in the New York Times, "In 1985, Shanghai had only one skyscraper. Today, it has 4,000, almost double the number in New York City."1 The greatest example in the rapid growth of Chinese cities is the Pearl River Delta, the mainland area across from the Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau, according to some the fastest growing urban area on the planet. Shenzhen, the first and most famous of Deng Xiaoping’s Special Economic Zones of liberal economic activity, grew from a quiet fishing village into a city more populous than its neighbor Hong Kong as well as China’s busiest port and second largest economic center. These extreme urban conditions attracted the attention of architect Rem Koolhaas, who co-authored the book Great Leap Forward covering urban development in the Pearl River Delta.

Currently there are two major urban forms which I see in China. These are the hutong and the housing development. The older form of the city is the hutong. Hutong is a Manchu-derived word meaning "alley,"2 but it’s much more than that. Many neighborhoods in Beijing were formed by joining one siheyuan to another to form a hutong, and then joining one hutong to another. The word hutong is also used to refer to such neighborhoods. The hutong is a self-contained ecosystem containing everything that the residents require. Life in the hutong is ultra-dense urban living. The hutong feel truly alive: people play cards, chess and mahjong, sell vegetables and meat, sell and repair clothes and bicycles. There is a strong sense of community. There are shared courtyards between houses and residents often use communal bathrooms.

Many ancient hutong today are rapidly being destroyed to make way for newer structures: highways, housing developments and hotels. A main feature of modern Chinese cities are their wide avenues. China is aping America's car-reliant (and oil-reliant) infrastructure. These cities have as much urban sprawl as those seen in the mid-western & western United States such as Houston and Los Angeles.

The first thing one notices is the huge scale on which many buildings are built. The newer structures are built to be as menacingly large and impressive as possible. While in the West the important dimension of a building is typically its height, in China the width of buildings are exaggerated to create a strong impression. Huge housing developments are being built at an enormous rate. Developers buy enormous plots of land and populate them with multiple identical skyscrapers. The housing developments are really not much more than luxury versions of what are known as "projects" in America or "council estates" in the UK. Other developments are more like the gated suburban communities of America, containing identical suburban style houses and have names like Sydney Coast and Orange County, both outside of Beijing. In fact, the names of many of the fancier housing developments have names evocative of the United States, Western Europe or Australia, sometimes with nonsensical results such as Edinburgh Chateau, or even MOMA and Central Park, all located in Beijing. Interestingly, the names never refer to anywhere in China, let alone Asia.

I lived in one such housing development in Beijing. Surrounding the apartment where I lived were many other similar housing projects under construction. This meant I essentially had to walk across enormous construction sites to get to and from work. The huge volume of construction workers and the network of small shopkeepers who cater to them form a temporary, improvised community while they work to convert the landscape from one urban form to another.

One of the most conspicuous examples of the strict social controls in place in China is the hukou system, residence permits which control residency rights and allow for access to healthcare and government services. The cities are growing at tremendous rates, as the rural workers come to take part in the new economy. Most come from the countryside to work as construction workers, forming China's enormous "floating population" of 150 to 200 million people living outside their officially designated residence. Beijing has an estimated floating population of two to four million people.

The two modes of urban life actually have a symbiotic relationship. Where construction sites appear (which is nearly everywhere in Beijing today), you have construction workers. The construction workers cannot afford to eat in the fancy restaurants which cater to the middle classes. Therefore "temporary hutong" spring up to cater to the floating population: small ramshackle houses, huts and tents, noodle shops, kebab stands, clothing stores and brothels. Life creeps in to fill the sterile vacuum. It is the labor and lifestyle of the hutong which enables the impoverished underclass to create the New China. But while the traditional hutong is centered on family life, these temporary, improvised hutong exist for the displaced, almost entirely male workers, recreating a semblance of the traditional hutong.

These two modes form two contrasting visions of urban life: sterility and fertility; the mechanical and the organic. Do cities exist for traffic or pedestrians? Are they built for cars or for humans? Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs. While the hutong facilitate interaction and familiarity among residents, life in the housing developments is anonymous. There has been some effort made recently to preserve traditional hutong and many Chinese artists, such as Ai Weiwei3, and filmmakers such as Jia Zhangke are creating works which question the progress of rapid urban change, specifically in Beijing.

Just as in post-war Britain the slums were rapidly destroyed and replaced with council estates, the same process is taking place today in China's cities. The difference between the two modes of urban life mirror the growing divide between the prosperous middle-class and the poor, a divide which is clearly visible to anyone who visits China today. To the Chinese, the hutong are an embarrassment, a sign of China's backwardness which must be sacrificed in the pursuit of modernization.

Photos taken in Beijing & Wuhan and text by Andrew Doro



1. "China’s Real Estate Boom" David Barboza, New York Times.

2. Wikipedia: hutong

3. "Ai Weiwei : Fragments, Voids, Sections and Rings" Adrian Blackwell & Pei Zhao, Archinect, Dec. 5, 2006.


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