By Dhrusti Patel, Sagar Mehta, and Li Chen
After the colossal, awe-inspiring monuments on Tiananmen Square, we decided to continue our Beijing exploration towards Meishi Street. We hoped to find some remnants of the times before the street was torn down, some indication of the Meishi Jie that existed prior to 2004. However, the first alleyway off Meishi Street immediately caught our interest. Having spent two hours in an area with towering buildings, we were intrigued by the stark contrast we suddenly observed looking down this small, rundown alley. Finding no sign of the chai 拆character indicating whether this was a demolition site, we wondered, why was this street left out in the government’s plans to renovate? From its appearance, this alley clearly had “old and dilapidated housing”, which used to be a primary reason for demolition in and around the Old City. Walking down the small alley, we realized that it was in fact the backside of a line of high-end restaurants, including a recently built McDonalds and the famous Lao She Teahouse. This location had to be prime real estate. Yet on the opposite side of this alley were small, old, decrepit residential homes, including a tiny liquor store. Lacking the beautiful Chinese décor alluring customers into restaurants on the other side, the only attractive sign on this liquor store was the green standard liquor and tobacco sign. We could not understand why this area had not been demolished when it fit the double criteria of housing needing upgrading and prime real estate location.
As we wondered, we saw an elderly woman arguing with the garbage collection man on the street. Curious about the ruckus and uncertain whether we wanted to keep walking, we lingered around the area. After the ruckus was over, we approached the elderly woman, in part to ask her about the area but to also find out why she was arguing. It turns out that she was complaining to the workers of the restaurant, who were placing trash-filled bags outside in the back of the restaurant; the backside of the posh restaurant was only around five feet from her home. She complained that the trash juice spilled onto the road (and we saw the stains) and stunk up the area, making the area unpleasant and creating sanitary problems as well as negatively impacting her liquor store. Based on readings and Ou Ning’s Meishi Street, we had an idea of how development affected Old Beijingers whose homes were demolished and were thus forced to vacate. Only through our talk with this kind woman and her husband did we gain an understanding of an unexplored perspective, the impact of Beijing development projects on remaining Old Beijingers whose homes have not been demolished
Mr. and Mrs. Chang have lived in their eight-square-meter house, the front of which is a liquor store, on Qianmenxihouheyan Jie for the past sixty years. When Mrs. Chang was a child, a river teeming with fish of all sizes flowed rapidly in front of her house and provided fresh water as well recreation and joy to the entire community. When she reminisces about the river, she describes children frolicking in the water and people fishing; “the fish was especially big,” she repeated over and over again. Mrs. Chang also talks about a wall not far from her house – she does not give the name but proudly states that “the wall” and “the river” were the cultural symbols of Old Beijing. At age fifteen, Mrs. Chang was sent by train to a rural province 3,000 kilometers away as part of the “Down to the Countryside Movement” during the Cultural Revolution. After spending ten years receiving “peasants’ education,” aka farming, she returned to her old home in Beijing to find the river covered up and wall torn down. In place of the beautiful river she remembered stood a three-story shopping market and commercial teahouse.
According to Mrs. Chang, all the residents on the street have been hoping for years for the government to uncover the tiles laid upon the river. Although the government promised repeatedly that it would do so, the promise was never fulfilled (the shopping market became a pharmacy and last year was turned into a McDonalds). As much as Mrs. Chang hoped and imagined her river, she knew that the uncovering was not going to happen after all those years. Nevertheless, she and her husband – as well as her community – “would still be very willing to see the river uncovered and wall rebuilt again”.
The greatest concern for Mrs. Chang, however, is not the loss of her cultural heritage in the demolition of the wall and covering up of the river, but the poor conditions she and her husband must live with everyday. Chi, he, la, sa, douzaiyijian 吃喝拉撒，都在一间, which translates to eat, drink, poop, etc. all in one room, is the phrase she uses to describe their buxiangren 不像人(unlike human) and taikuazhang 太夸张(too ridiculous) living space. When asked what they wanted, they pointed to their house and enunciated firmly and clearly, chai le 拆了(demolish it). They wanted the government to tear down the house and rebuild on top of the plot, or tear down the house and move them to a different part of town; either way was fine as long as it provided them higher living standards. As we listened, we were very surprised to find a homeowner actively wanting her house to be demolished, especially after watching Ou Ning’s film Meishi Street. Unlike Zhang Jinli, who has a deep attachment to the physical space and the meaning he finds in the space, the Changs are much more concerned about physical living standards, perhaps because they have already lost what they thought held the most meaning – the river and the wall. Their daughter also no longer lived on the street – she had married and moved to a different part of Beijing with her husband. Despite three generations of history in their house, the Changs have their hearts set on a new house or moving out.
The Changs are not alone in their desire to chai their house; neighbors on the street who have also lived there for generations strongly echo this sentiment. Their discontent is aggravated by all the changes they see around Beijing and how everyone else is getting improvements and gengxin 更新 (renovation) but their street. Even in preparation for the Olympics, no changes occurred on their street except a small roof installed by the government. Only our area was left behind, Mrs. Chang said, and we are the closest neighborhood to Tiananmen. We want them [the government] to come and see how the renmin人民 (people) actually live, in the heart of Beijing. In the front, everything looks beautiful and glamorous. But behind, this is how the people live. She complained that despite reporters bringing media attention, not a single official from the government has visited their area. In addition to dissatisfaction with the absence of state action, she finds the claims of journalists, who oppose demolition because they want to preserve Chinese culture, to be nonsensical and disadvantageous to the situation of her street. Where is the culture?, she points to a house and asks, Mei yo ba! (It doesn’t exist!) There’s no culture here. The only culture was in the wall and river, but those are not here. There is no culture in these structures. When inquired whether any other part of Beijing was worth preserving, she talked about an area with houses that famous people lived in the past.
At some point of our conversation, Mr. Chang, who had been sitting inside the house for most of the time, arose and asked us, “are you reporters?” We did the whole “no, we’re not reporters. We’re not from the government. We’re students from the US learning about China and Beijing…” spiel (essentially the same one we always gave in India), Mrs. Chang responded, Well, it doesn’t matter if you’re from the media. Everything we are saying is truth and fact. You can verify by what you see and see if facts match up with what we are saying.
She does not know too much about the other parts of Beijing, but does see changes occurring for the better in everywhere except her area. Why their area has been left behind is a “big question mark in the minds of the people,” she says. I only know about what is around me and what concerns my daily life, she explains. Their [the government’s] business, 人民 (the people) do not know about.
Just the next street gave us a completely different glimpse into the developing Beijing, one that fell more in line with what we’ve learned through our readings. Up and down the bustling street we observed better-off families and trendy people strolling by, kids gathered around the street-side playing card games, and even a few other tourists passing by. Situated along the sides were several noticeably improved buildings, such as fancy two-story restaurants, a deceivingly large grocery shop, a tourist office, and even a public bathroom. Yet we also witnessed several demolished land plots alongside the more established buildings.
To understand the history of this street and relate this newfound knowledge to the contrasts of the first street, we approached an elderly female who operated a smaller, older eatery. Thanks to Li’s language abilities, we were able to uncover the history of the street through her eyes. Apparently the government had planned to widen the road, which requires the demolition of all buildings. The government offered compensation to the families; those who accepted the compensation (about one-third of the street’s families) relocated, explaining the scattered demolished land plots we observed. The other two-thirds of the families refused to take the compensation, convinced that their estates are worth much more. According to the restaurant owner, the government does not have enough money to invest in this particular project at the moment; therefore the development plan is on hold. The woman wants five million yuan for her house and made clear how much she detests being relocated to the 5th or 6th ring road, to where she believes the other families are being moved.
This story resonates with the readings we’ve covered in class as well as with the documentary Meishi Street, in which the government slowly forced out long-inhabited local residents to build new projects. It is interesting to note, however, that the families on this side street were able to demand more money and thereby stall the government’s plans – at least according to the woman, who was very defiant of the development plan and convinced that their holdout for greater monetary compensation would work indefinitely. This contrasts greatly with our perceptions of the all-powerful and unstoppable Chinese state. We are not sure why the government apparently doesn’t have enough money for its plan, but the woman’s account provided no other explanation. We are also unaware of why the government decided to develop this street but not Qianmenxihouheyan Jie, which is right next door and even closer to Tiananmen.
Both families treated us warmly and eagerly shared their experiences with us. Yet despite being only one street apart, they were exposed to completely different circumstances and, as a result, developed completely different outlooks on their livelihood aspirations. At first, we figured the root of the problem might be that the first couple didn’t have as strong of a social network as the restaurant woman did, but upon further analysis of the couple’s responses, this is not true: the residents of Qianmenxihouheyan Jie relied on each other as neighbors and friends all their lives. Another explanation we considered was that the original family felt left behind. Despite development not always being a prized reward, seeing it occur all around and the standard of living rise accordingly must be discomforting, making it difficult to continue living in the same conditions as one had fifty years ago. Perhaps for the first couple, their prime location wasn’t worth this lag in standard of living. Perhaps for the next restaurant woman, with her busy restaurant looking out over a bustling street, the location’s value outscores the lag in standard of living. One more reason related to the last could be the street layout itself and the competing businesses. As previously mentioned, the restaurant woman seemed to have plenty of customers and public services, including proximity to a public bathroom. On Qianmenxihouheyan Jie, the Changs’ store is very small, overshadowed by huge buildings, and seems to service only local regulars. Perhaps due to this, the couple was seeking an improved standard of living that could feasibly only involve relocation.