Bricklayers of Beijing
Construction - Destruction
|Article in "La Vanguardia" 11/2005|
Today, Beijing has 15 million inhabitants but when it reached the first million the main European capitals were little more than towns. For many centuries it has been a great metropolis. As a consequence, the old Beijing is (or was) an enormous city. Its layout is based on a grid of narrow alleys (hutong) lined with inner courtyard houses (siheyuan). This grid pattern filled almost the entire space within the city walls. The city walls, an imposing square of approximately 10 km on one side, separated the old from the new city and protected the older part. In 1964 Mao ordered to demolish them in order to accelerate the urban development of the centre. The destruction of the old Beijing hasn't stopped since.
The traditional siheyuan were fantastic houses: a great courtyard, lots of space, greenery, silence. However these middle-class houses, designed to host a couple of families, were suddenly shared between 10 or more after the Liberation. In their present condition they have lost much of their former attraction. People are piled up, the courtyards have been cluttered with tumbledown constructions, the toilets are outside.
The siheyuan of nowadays have little left of their former glory but they could regain it if they were restored in their original state. Nevertheless, that is not the chosen policy. For years now, entire neighbourhoods are being demolished in a fast pace to free space for new buildings.
The sight of the process is depressing in many ways. An effective legal base to protect this patrimony is inexistent. The inhabitants don't have the possibility to oppose to the demolition and the resettlement to another neighbourhood.
The process begins with the apparition of a great "chai" character painted on the wall of your house. This sinister ideogram contained in a circle is the death sentence of your home. Some months after receiving the graphic notice, the bulldozers will be demolishing the houses until the last scrap. Entire neighbourhoods of Beijing are marked and sentenced to destruction. Once the work begins, it can last for months. It is very sad to see how the last families have to live surrounded by the rubble of their neighbour's houses before being resettled.
I have never seen a place with so many cranes on the horizon. The pace at which the new skyscraper s appear and get higher in Beijing is overwhelming. From any building you can see others under construction. In Beijing , these new towers seem to follow a rule: "the more eccentric the better".
In spite of some discrepancies, a majority of Beijiners looks at this metamorphosis as a desirable and necessary progress. The Beijing of today is unrecognisable if we compare it with 10 years ago and it will be something totally different in 10 more years, if this pace is kept.
These two faces of Beijing 's reality articulate around the bricklayers who work daily to the bone, destroying and constructing. According to a recent survey only in Beijing there are more than 1.300.000 construction workers. A city within a city, but without participating in its life.
As soon as a plot is ready, a high wall is built around and covered with images of the future colossus. From the outside everything is shining. Inside, in private, the work begins. A few meters from the holes, the iron beams and the noise, temporary wretched barracks are built to lodge the workers. In these tumbledown constructions, hundreds of workers live piled up in very hard conditions. Their life is contained within the site's wall: from the barrack to the site and from the site to the barrack.
Leaving this "ghetto" is not easy. Outside lies a city that is unknown, hostile and too expensive for their income level. Great part of the hostility comes from the future inhabitants of the houses that they are building: the Beijingers. The workers are looked down at, treated as citizens from an inferior caste and often used as expiatory goat for the problems of the city. They are blamed to be a source of insecurity, accused of bike robbery, and of being the reason for the growing lack of civility in the city. Even educated people talk openly about them as a kind of sub-people.
The destruction and the construction are visible facts. Any person passing through Beijing comes across it. I've tried to focus more on the main characters, the workers, than on the facts.
Inside China many realities coexist: The urban and the rural, the coastal rich and the poor western. In these construction sites I have found islands of rural China transposed into an urban sea. It's a shocking contrast. In these work ghettos I see tanned faces, looks of surprise facing a foreigner and naivety that the Beijing citizens never had. Those are the faces I met in villages hundred kilometres away from the capital and they seem out of context here. These labourers are country people that have been "transplanted" to the city without the possibility to grow roots.