Wed, May 28, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Bulldozers threaten to rip Beijing's social fabric

THERE GOES THE NEIGHBORHOOD The Chinese capital's controversial urban renewal program will mean the end to tight-knit communities such as Nanyingfang


Residents of Nanyingfang drink beer and swat flies in the Beijing neiborhood that has been marked for demolition.


No historic buildings will be lost when they level the neighborhood of Nanyingfang to build more luxury offices, apartments and malls.

This enclave near the city center is home to thousands of poor but proud people who have lived there for generations. In October, developers will level the neighborhood, a ramshackle tangle of single-story brick dwellings that have been rebuilt over the centuries on what began as an imperial army camp near the Temple of the Sun.

It features no architectural gems, but what Nanyingfang does have is a deeply rooted community that will soon be demolished, another step in the "urban renewal" that has altered the Beijing landscape.

The residents know that change is unstoppable, and few will miss the communal toilets. But they are worried about their compensation and where they will find new homes -- almost certainly, for most, in a colorless high-rise on the city's distant outskirts.

Even more, they fear for the social texture of their lives.

"This is the old style of living, where everyone has to live side by side so you're always running into your neighbors," said Pang Hongsheng, a 54-year-old man who grew up in Nanyingfang as did his parents. "In those new apartment blocks, if you live on the first floor you wouldn't even think of visiting someone on the sixth floor."

"Nobody here wants to leave, because relationships with their friends and family will become a lot weaker, and people will be more isolated," Pang said.

This anachronistic neighborhood purrs with the petty pleasures and pains of traditional Beijing life. Children jump rope and play hide-and-seek in the maze of lanes that are wide enough for carts but not for cars.

Middle-aged men, some in pajamas, spend the day sipping beer and playing cards. Elderly women sit outside their doors, brandishing fly-swatters as they chat with neighbors and watch who comes and goes.

None of the residents here have caught SARS, and few display the dread that has led many other Beijing people to cower at home in recent weeks, and compounds to bar all visitors.

But the looming transition is impossible to forget because every building has been spray-painted with the giant character "chai," or "demolish," by agents of the Chaoyang district government. The district has created a corporation that will develop this prime real estate.

To residents, the corporation is offering compensation tied to the size of existing homes. A few have accepted and their homes are already bulldozed or boarded up, but most are asking for more money.

"They are offering US$20,000 and we're holding out for US$30,000," Pang said. "What they are offering isn't even enough to buy a decent apartment in the suburbs."

Pang and other residents can be forgiven if they bargain for the last penny and perhaps even exaggerate the financial strains. Unemployed since his factory job dried up several years ago, he receives a poverty allowance from the city of US$34 a month and makes a few extra dollars fixing bicycles.

His wife runs a small beauty salon in front of the room the couple share with their 6-year-old daughter, but her business barely buys food for the table, they said.

Still, the couple scrimp each month to pay US$36 for their daughter's dance lessons at a nearby academy; she seems to have real talent, the doting parents said, and they want to nourish it, but wonder how she can continue once they move.

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