How Beijing's Old Neighborhoods Are Escaping Gentrification

Life in the hutong
Life in the hutong
Brice Pedroletti

BEIJING - From his pigeon house, Wan Lianxi overlooks a sea of misshapen roofs and walls overgrown with weeds. He recently added a corrugated plastic roof for shade.

Wan started raising homing pigeons in downtown Beijing 40 years ago - when he was still a teenager. Today, he has about 100 of them. During races, in fall and spring, his fastest birds are released a couple of hundred kilometers from Beijing. An electronic chip allows judges to measure the birds’ speed and make sure that they make it home safely.

If Wan was living in another neighborhood of Beijing, far from this hutong (narrow lane), he would either have to be very rich to own a home with a pigeon house on the roof - or have to build one of the illegal aviaries hidden on netted balconies which city officials are waging a war against.

Beijing’s traditional hutong neighborhoods – which have survived several waves of demolitions – have a countryside feel. We are southwest from Qianmen, “the gate of the Zenith Sun,” which once guarded the southern entry into the old Tatar city – where another hutong neighborhood was recreated. It now hosts many fast food restaurants and souvenir shops. This enclave seems unaffected by time: overgrown trees have made the job of builders and electric post fencers even harder. The prettiest houses are covered in yellow flowers about to grow into endless cucumber plants. Courtyards are filled with junk, which has also taken over delivery bicycles and windowsills. Bedding, pajamas and underwear dry in the hot August sun. You can tell where the public toilets are by their smell and the comings and goings around them. In the hutong, few houses have their own toilets. These ones, like most public toilets in China, don't have doors.

Standing on a prehistoric-looking bike, a copper-skinned eighty-year-old knife sharpener offers his services. “Who has got knives to sharpen?” he asks repeatedly. At night, on Zongshu Xiejie (Palm Trees Alley), locals set tables on the street to play cards, checkers and mahjong. People are coming home from work while others are leaving. “You have to go to Bada Hutong – one of the eight great hutongs – to play mahjong. There are great sets made of bones, solid wooden tables and there are beautiful girls,” wrote intellectual Liang Shih-chiu about this neighborhood, which was once famous for its brothels.

Palm Trees Alley, where bird lover Wan was born and raised, used to be called Wang’s Widow Street. Wang’s widow’s brothel was one of the street’s most famous. Is it the former bathhouse next to Wan’s house, with two balconies on each floor overlooking an inner courtyard? Nobody knows – all they know for sure is that it was turned into a youth center after the Cultural Revolution. There are 16 electric meters in the lobby – one for each apartment – or hut - converted by previous or current tenants. In November 1949, a month after the People’s Republic of China was proclaimed, communist leaders declared war on Bada Hutong: the new public security secretary launched a huge cleaning operation of the brothels the same night, “freeing” 1000 girls. They were immediately sent to re-education camps, to be released less than a year later.

No gentrification here

What remains of Bada Hutong is unlikely to change – it is too close to the historical center to be turned into tower blocks. It will probably not be subject to gentrification either, as the square-shaped courtyards that foreigners love so much are in dire conditions. A few inns still try to attract foreign travelers with signs in English. The scar of the past might just save the neighborhood from urban renewal.

Inhabitants of Bada Hutong are diverse: there are retired families, like Qi Renmin's (whose first name means “people”), who mostly rent cheap state-owned houses. Mr. Qi pays a dozen Yuan a month (less than $2) for 11m2, since his Beijing retiree status enables him to receive a monthly housing benefit of 3000 Yuan ($473). If they can afford to, the children of these Lao Beijing (“true Beijingers”) move to the neighboring tower blocks or the suburbs.

Then there are the waidiren - the outsiders - who are slowly transforming Beijing’s low-income neighborhoods. Yuan Yu, 40, comes from Hunan. She opened a foot massage parlor a year ago on Palm Trees Alley. A 45-minute session costs only 30 Yuan (almost $5), which is much cheaper than in anywhere else in the center of Beijing. Zhao Nuo, 20, originally from Harbin, and his partners started a printing and binding business. His parents followed suit and opened a jiaozi Chinese dumpling restaurant, further down the alley. Since renting a room or a store is cheap, a growing number of people are settling in Bada Hudong – yet it is not as visible as in the city’s suburbs - nicknamed Beijing’s “ant colonies.” Life here, like it is there, is peaceful – just like a village.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

For if nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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