Under Construction: Three Tales of Urban China

Shanghai: The Building
Fifteen people gathered in the driveway outside my apartment building as Dad and I approached, many of them screaming at each other, while two policemen seemed content to stand there and watch. I wasn’t sure what to do. Walk through the crowd to get to my door? Join the group to find out what was going on? Leave? One of my neighbors saw the two of us wavering and beckoned us forward, clearing a path to the entrance. We rushed into the building and climbed the stairs to my floor, then leaned over the outside balcony to see more of what was going on below. The people fighting seemed agitated, but not violent, and I was surprised that the policemen were bothering to hang around. I wasn’t especially surprised, though, that the fracas was taking place—things had been tense in the apartment complex all week. Clearly, the tension had boiled over.

Construction debris and materials outside my apartment building
Construction debris and materials outside my apartment building

Two—or maybe three?—of the families in my building were renovating their apartments at the same time, and the noise and disruption were annoying those of us who weren’t. From eight in the morning until eight (and sometimes later) at night, the sound of hammering filled the air, while drills seemed to make the entire building vibrate. The driveway outside was filled with chunks of concrete that needed to be hauled away, as cinderblock and rebar stood ready to be carried inside by the line of workmen who shuffled up and down the stairs all day. Clearly, renovations here didn’t just mean a new coat of paint and different tiles on the floors; these families seemed to be dismantling and reconstructing the building around me.

My apartment community dates, I estimate, to the 1940s or ’50s; it’s a cement-block complex with little character and none of the architectural details people might imagine when I say I live in the French Concession. These apartments were likely doled out as danwei (work-unit) housing and provided to employees a low monthly rent during the Mao era. I know that officially, my apartment is leased by the grandparents of Bathrobe Guy, whom I assume were the original recipients of the housing assignment; when they decided to move away, the family fixed up the apartment and began renting it out for extra income. Most of my neighbors are elderly, and have probably been residing in this complex for decades.

So renovation here can mean a couple of different things: maybe the apartment-dwellers have decided to upgrade their home, sublet it to newcomers (or foreigners), and move; or perhaps their financial situations are such that they can afford to make over their apartment from top to bottom. In both cases, renovation is an outward sign of economic and social change—but one that not all who live here have experienced.

This can cause tempers to fray, especially because all of us are affected by the chaos of renovation. Latent tensions between longtime neighbors explode in the face of rubble and racket. The fight that brought policemen to my driveway had actually begun late the previous evening, when two workmen began knocking down a low wall in the driveway behind the building. As best as I can tell, one of the neighbors thought it was her wall, or at the very least disagreed with the other resident’s decision to demolish a wall that she shared. The two screamed at each other late into the night, then apparently picked up the argument again in the morning, escalating it to a point where a dozen other neighbors were drawn in and the police had to be called.

As I write this two weeks later, the building is silent and peace reigns once again—though for how long, I wonder. Construction materials still litter the driveway outside the door, and it doesn’t seem that the work is over.

Beijing: The Neighborhood
I was cold, I was lost, and I was cranky.

My crankiness stemmed in part from the intense cold, but even more from the feeling that I shouldn’t have been lost; I’d walked north on Di’anmen Outer Street a hundred times or more and turned right at Mao’er Hutong almost every time, heading to study at my favorite coffee shop in the heart of an old Beijing alleyway neighborhood. But those hundred trips had been in 2005, and while the street now looked vaguely familiar, nothing really seemed the same. I walked up and down Di’anmen Outer Street, searching in vain for the entrance to the hutong that I had once known so well.

Entrance to Mao'Er Hutong
Entrance to Mao’Er Hutong

I finally asked someone for help, and she pointed me toward the next intersection, where construction cranes loomed over a pathway created between sheets of plastic and corrugated metal that fenced off the construction site. This, it turned out, was Mao’er Hutong; I had walked past it twice, disoriented by the change and not helped by the lack of a sign marking the narrow street.

Once I passed through the construction zone and began walking down the hutong, memories flooded back. There were the small convenience stores that sold bottled drinks, ice cream, and miscellaneous dry goods. There was the house with a sign on its door politely refusing unknown callers. And, finally, I turned a corner and there was Xiao Xin’s Café, where I spent endless afternoons drinking diet Cokes and memorizing Chinese characters. It was still the same.

And yet it wasn’t. Despite the traces of the hutong I remembered, much of the neighborhood had changed during the intervening seven years. Most notably, the south side of Mao’er Hutong had been partially demolished, the old-style courtyard houses replaced by what I call “luxury hutongs”: new construction that is meant to resemble the old, but with improved amenities and higher price tags. Other tourists and I slid across the icy, uneven cobblestones lining the streets of the new development (who thought cobblestones in Beijing were a good idea?) and took pictures of the gray brick houses, their color a few shades darker than the bleak winter sky.

Luxury hutong housing in Beijing
Luxury hutong housing in Beijing

The demolition of old hutongs in central Beijing attracts both supporters and detractors. Those in favor point to the lack of amenities (such as bathrooms) in traditional hutong housing and argue that residents would really rather live in new apartments. Those who wish to preserve the hutongs lament the loss of Beijing’s architectural heritage, its neighborhoods, and its sense of history.1 Not surprisingly (for a historian), I fall into the preservationist camp; I’d like to see older hutongs renovated and made more comfortable for their residents, and I hate the cookie-cutter California-subdivision feel of the new luxury hutong construction.

But I know that the other aspect of Beijing’s ongoing saga of urban change that bothers me—less as a historian than as a person who once lived here—is the intense feeling of disorientation I experienced during my search for Mao’er Hutong. I knew exactly where I was, yet I was completely lost; I’d hoped for a walk down memory lane, only to find it under construction.

Later that day, I read an account of someone else who felt a similar confusion when walking once-familiar terrain. But this person didn’t live in Beijing; he had returned from Chennai to his childhood home in rural India and was giving a journalist, Akash Kapur, a tour of the town:

Hari wanted me to see his old school. He asked his mother for directions. “What, have you forgotten?” I asked, and he said, “No, it’s just that when I was a kid there were no roads or paths here. I get confused sometimes. There were hardly any buildings” (India Becoming, p. 145).

I knew how he felt.

The major vestiges of imperial Beijing—the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the leaders’ compound at Zhongnanhai—will never move; they are fixed landmarks at the center of the city. But around them, everything is shifting. A few streets here, a neighborhood there, and piece by piece, Beijing is remade, in changes that are massive on the neighborhood scale, yet minuscule dots on the map of this enormous metropolis.2

Qingdao: The City
When we arrived in Qingdao a couple of days later, I was amazed to find a city that makes Beijing and Shanghai feel complete—settled—in comparison. Qingdao is awash in change: construction sites abound and cranes dot the skyline. Dad and I rode in taxis that jounced over rutted roads awaiting repaving, while workmen dug deep ditches to install sewer lines. On our trip out to the airport, we saw the future home of the Qingdao North Railway Station. And at regular intervals throughout the city, green plastic tarps imprinted with “Qingdao Metro” box off large sections of sidewalk and roadway, protecting the work sites of Qingdao’s first subway line, scheduled to open in 2014.

New coastal villas await the installation of utilities
New coastal villas await the installation of utilities

All of this construction comes as Qingdao, like other second-tier Chinese cities, seeks to remake itself. Tourists enjoy its beaches in the summer, and beer from the Tsingtao Brewery flows all over the world, but Qingdao hopes to attract high-tech industry and become a center of R&D for multi-national corporations, not just domestic firms like Haier and Hisense (which already have their headquarters in the city). The result: more skyscrapers.

I understand city officials’ desire to expand the city’s economy, especially because tourism is a seasonal industry and winter is definitely not Qingdao’s season. But I also wonder how this construction boom, and the hoped-for expansion of high-tech industry, will affect Qingdao’s much-hyped status as one of China’s “most livable” cities. I expect the subway will be an improvement—Qingdao has few cyclists on its narrow and hilly streets, and our taxis and buses frequently got stuck in traffic jams. I am less certain that it needs more bland skyscrapers and high-rise apartment towers.

Construction site in downtown Qingdao
Construction site in downtown Qingdao

I am especially doubtful on this point because as Dad and I passed newly completed buildings, we noted time and again how many of their units stood empty. This is not uncommon in China, where the real estate market is plagued with problems and a significant portion of high-end housing stock goes unoccupied. I knew this, but I was nevertheless startled to see such a large-scale example of the impulse toward over-building that I’d previously read about. When the dust has settled and the construction frenzy is over, will Qingdao remain among China’s most livable cities? Or are developers ripping at the fabric of urban life in a vain hope that “If you build it, they will come” might eventually prove true?


  1. Ian Johnson does a far better job than I can accomplish here of outlining the major issues at stake in hutong destruction. See “The High Price of the New Beijing,” The New York Review of Books (June 23, 2011), available at ChinaFile. Michael Meyer’s 2009 book, The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed, is an evocative ground-level account of living through urban change in Beijing.
  2. After I returned from Beijing, I discovered that I’ll probably recognize even less on my next trip to the city: large parts of the Drum and Bell Tower area, not far from Mao’er Hutong, are scheduled for destruction, due to be completed by late February.

2 thoughts on “Under Construction: Three Tales of Urban China

  1. Dear Maura,

    Really enjoyed this!!  Reminds me of everywhere here in the US—overbuild, overbuild and overbuild.

    We got back to quiet Florida last night and haven’t heard from your Mom in a while although I know that she has been up to her ears.

    In the meantime, Happy New Year; hope you decide to spend at least part of it closer to home!  As always, much love,

    Aunt Gin

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