An American lives side by side with the fear-stricken denizens of an ancient neighborhood that will not survive China’s Olympic Games.
The Old and Dilapidated Housing Renewal program, reports first-time author Meyer, has evicted 1.25 million residents from their homes in Beijing. This massive official initiative to “clean up” the city for the upcoming summer Olympics focuses on demolition and removal in Beijing’s traditional hutong (lane) areas, neighborhoods of narrow paths that crisscross the heart of the city. The author, who first went to China as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1995, moved to a walled courtyard home in a hutong in 2005, when the pace of demolitions was accelerating. He makes palpable the impact of this initiative on Chinese families and the many older people who have never known another kind of home. Compensatory payment is offered when “the Hand” (Meyer’s epithet for anonymous, creeping bureaucracy) stencils the Chinese character meaning “raze” on their walls, the author explains. But even those who go quietly and promptly, therefore locking in the highest settlement, find that it rarely covers their expenses in a sterile concrete high-rise that could be a two-hour commute away. And such is the pull of the hutong on its older inhabitants that many hold out and get nothing; some who are forced out simply disappear. Most Beijing residents neither abhor progress nor revile the government, Meyer stresses; it’s just the total lack of transparency that depresses everybody. Few Americans would care for the hutong’s basic amenities—public latrines, bathhouses, coal- or charcoal-burning heaters—and “dilapidated” is often an accurate description. But these venerable lanes shelter neighbors who truly know, trust and depend on each other, avers the author, who paints a picture of deep personal loss as the old alleys vanish.
Revealing portrait of urban change, and the consequences of China’s unquenchable thirst for modernization.