Beijing's Olympic makeover runs only skin deep

BEIJING (Reuters) - Liu Jielian isn’t exactly impressed with the facelift the government recently gave her home in central Beijing as it seeks to spruce up the city for the Olympic Games in August.

People walk past the ruins of courtyard houses, which are being demolished, in Beijing January 2, 2008. REUTERS/Reinhard Krause

The courtyard to the one-storey building where the retired school teacher lives has had a fancy doorway installed and its facade has been encased in a thin layer of dark grey cement, with lines etched to resemble bricks.

Inside, nothing has changed.

“It’s all superficial,” said, Liu, 53, gesturing to the new outer wall, parts of which were already chipping.

“Behind this, it’s all old bricks. It’s not sturdy at all -- this can easily be peeled off,” she said.

Liu’s is just one of the many traditional homes that have been brightened up by an army of workers in recent months as part of a billion-dollar campaign to “beautify” Beijing ahead of the Olympics.

Their efforts, which come on top of the tens of billions being spent on venues and infrastructure, have contributed to a stark contrast of colors in the city’s old “hutongs,” or lanes.

The “siheyuan,” or courtyards, have been painted in clean-cut greys and brick reds, the hues of imperial Beijing.

But a peek inside many of the often cramped mazes of one-storey rooms reveals the orange-colored bricks they are built of, along with staples of hutong life such as stacks of coal briquettes and roofs patched up with tin.

By the time the estimated half-million foreign visitors descend on the city for the Games in August, the interior of the courtyards might have been spruced up too.

Liu said renovation on the inside of her courtyard was due this spring, but it would likely be just a touch-up job.


Zou Huan, an expert in urban heritage preservation at Tsinghua University’s architecture school, said it was understandable that authorities would use a temporary fix to present a good image during the Olympics.

“It’s just like before the Lunar New Year: every family has to clean up their house, even washing the curtains and changing the sofa covers,” Zou said.

Still, Zou said he hoped putting on a good face for the Olympics would not detract from a longer-term project that is bringing more thorough preservation work to selected parts of the old town.

While large swathes of hutongs have been razed to make way for office blocks, shopping malls and wider roads, the central government in 2005 laid out a plan to protect specific areas.

“Fixing the facades but leaving the interiors the same -- that’s like someone washing their face but not their neck,” he said. “I hope that this kind of work will continue.”

Some Beijing residents feel that even if the government does a good restoration job, the essence of the courtyard homes will inevitably be destroyed.

Zhou Zhong is struggling to keep the house just southeast of central Tiananmen Square that has been in his family for generations.

To stay, the 44-year-old said, he would have to fix up the building using contractors chosen by the government, potentially pushing the cost beyond his reach.

Relevant city officials in charge of construction declined interview requests.


“The government is moving the original hutong residents out as it is restoring them,” Zhou said, standing by a pile of rubble from a demolished home.

“That is pointless. When the local residents are gone, it’s no longer a traditional courtyard house. A bunch of rich people move in, and it changes the whole nature of the courtyards. The atmosphere is gone, and the friendliness disappears.”

Still, other Beijingers say the beautification campaign has brought genuine benefits.

In addition to giving a fresh coat of paint to thousands of well-worn apartment blocks, the government has built numerous parks where people can exercise, stroll and relax.

Zhao Lianyue, an 88-year-old retired factory worker, spent one recent afternoon as he often does: sitting with some friends on a bench and chatting the time away.

The new stretch of grass and trees lining one of Beijing’s major ring roads saves him having to walk 2 km (1.2 miles) and cross a major intersection to get to the nearest park.

“This is a good place,” Zhao said. “Right now there aren’t many people here because it’s winter. But there will be lots more once summer comes.”

Zou, the preservation expert, agreed that efforts to protect the city’s heritage had to focus on giving the original residents a chance to keep up their way of life -- and that in part means making way for much-needed public spaces, he said.

“Restoring that kind of open area and giving more people a chance to experience the spaces of old Beijing is probably more important than one or two single buildings, even if they are relatively valuable ones,” he said.

Additional reporting by Kitty Bu; editing by Megan Goldin