Filmmakers Jonah Kessel and Kit Gillet examine the fate of old Beijing's hutong

Travel | by Aimee Groom
Posted: April 6th, 2011 | Updated: July 28th, 2011 | Comments
Green China_Jonah Kessel_vanishing world It's a sadly recurrent theme in China, as James Weir recently documented with his post on the ongoing  destruction of much of old Shanghai in the name of making way for the new. It's something visitors can see in cities throughout the country, where local governments are racing to develop economically valuable city center land, often without much apparent consideration of  what cultural, historical and personal losses such breakneck development entails. Beijing's rapidly disappearing hutong are just another case in point.  It can be heart breaking to think about families being forced from their homes, with entire communities uprooted to make way for new roads, cookie-cutter shopping centers and yet more fast food chains. On the other hand, it can be hard to argue with modernization initiatives in a nation that, despite its vaunted economic growth, is still home to hundreds of millions of citizens living without modern plumbing in crowded, crumbling quarters. But surely, preservation isn't antithetical to progress, and new developments aren't always best. And what do the people who actually live in old neighborhoods think? Beijing-based filmmakers Jonah Kessel and Kit Gillet recently made a beautiful series of short documentaries examining the the struggle faced in trying to preserve the capital's culturally, historically and socially valuable courtyard housing, where for many, community spirit and the sense of history make up for relatively poor living conditions and amenities. As one former hutong-dweller puts it, the hutong "vibrates with human life" and his new high-rise apartment home built of steel, concrete and glass is "cold, like living in a hotel." (Continued after the jump) The documentaries were due to be screened at the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center last month but were cancelled at the last minute, allegedly due to "time and logistical constraints," though "a person with intimate knowledge of the situation told the Global Times that the event was canceled due to a failure to obtain approval from the authorities first." Fortunately, these sensitive, sometimes emotional, but overall well-balanced short films looking at the past, present and future of Beijing's hutong and their inhabitants can be viewed below (you'll need a VPN or proxy in China). Alternatively, head to the China Green portal of the Asia Society's website, where the whole project comes together with additional footage, a digital hutong tour and slideshow of historical photos. For a bit more background on the initiative, head to Jonah Kessel's blog, Nomadically Curious Visual Thoughts. Chapter One: A Disappearing World Chapter Two: David vs. Goliath Chapter Three: Beyond the Alleys
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