Nov 25, 2013
Xuejiawan Hutong in Qianmen. Photo: Courtesy of Zhang Wei

The autumn weather was clear in Shichahai, in the historic old neighborhood around the Houhai historic and tourist district in the heart of Beijing. Zhang Wei stood in the crowd in front of a 130-year-old Beijing traditional restaurant, watching his skillful friends from Zhongfanhui, a performance group, who were only wearing sleeveless shirts in the November morning while doing their best to entertain their audience.

People living the big and small hutong around Shichahai, young and old, all came out to the restaurant, Baodu Zhang, to watch the free performance of traditional Beijing entertainment.

I planned this ceremony for free, because the owner is my friend who has the same enthusiasm and dedication to old Beijing culture as me, said Zhang. Other members of our photography group are also here, taking pictures to record and memorialize the moments of old Beijing.

Zhang runs, a website about old Beijing's culture. It started out as a photography group which specialized in old Beijing hutong, customs and traditional culture.

To help members of the group communicate and organize activities, Zhang started the website in 2000, and has been working full time on it. He said he is not a businessman, nor the owner of the website, but only a manager of the website and the leader of the guardians of old Beijing culture. It has been said that the photography group was suspended, and the website was dying and would be on sale, but Zhang denied that.

I will not sell the website in the near future, I am hanging on, but it takes me too much energy and it is on the edge of collapse. What we are focusing is old Beijing's culture, not just the website, said Zhang. But the website is important for us because it gathers people with the same interest and sense of responsibility to protect old Beijing culture, record and memorialize old Beijing, and call on more people to join in.

To earn money to maintain the operation of the website, Zhang now does some activity planning for businesses, and serves as an intermediary to invite performance groups to give shows at Changdian Temple Fair during the Spring Festival every year. This brings in about 20,000 yuan ($3,300) each year.

They can also get money from newspapers, magazines and libraries buying the copyright of the photos they take. This income can be 10,000 to 20,000 yuan a year.

We need more than 100,000 yuan every year to keep the website going, and what we do to make money is always not enough by far, said Zhang, Most money comes from me, and I am poor. I feel like I was assigned to do this by God, and I am doomed to be poor.

An archival photo of a wedding ceremony. Photo: Courtesy of Zhang Wei

More help, less demolition

However, according to Zhang, money is not the biggest problem. What his group needs most is understanding and recognition by the local government.

Zhang said he moved the server of their website to Hong Kong in June 2012 because the website was shut down in May for no reason. He believed that happened because of the arguments made on the website against demolishing old Beijing hutong.

Zhang said there was one Japanese businessman who wanted to buy the website, and there were many foreign institutions wanting to help by giving subsidies. But he said he refused them all. He said he would be very scrupulous when dealing with foreign-related affairs.

The phrase used most frequently by Zhang is having no choice. It is very ironic that foreign relic protection institutions are so willing to help us protecting our own culture, while we are in our hardest days in Beijing, said Zhang. I had no choice but moving the server to Hong Kong, and maybe some day I will have no choice but sell the website to some certain foreign institutions.

Zhang said he was reluctant to sell the archive overseas because he wants China to control its own history.

There is another major difficulty threatening the existence of the website. The hutong and culture within them are quickly vanishing. In the quick process of urbanization, many hutong have been demolished, and a lot of existing ones are now in danger of disappearing as well.

According to Zhang, in 1948, there were 3,068 hutong in Beijing; the number dropped to 1,200 in 2000, 758 in 2005, and less than 500 in 2013.

We cannot change the trend of urbanization in Beijing, said Zhang. We just need more time to record and save the photos and videos as historical proof of the existence of old Beijing. Also we need to record the current state of the people living in hutong, and the people who used to live there.

Zhang Wei is struggling to keep the Old Beijing website alive. Photo: Courtesy of Zhang Wei

Losing context

Zhang took the restaurant Baodu Zhang as an example of protecting old Beijing culture. He said the owner of the restaurant has applied to the government to list the restaurant's signature dish and other old Beijing traditional food making skills as part of the city's intangible cultural heritage. The owner of the restaurant is concerned that if the old building that houses the restaurant is demolished, the traditional food would lose its charm in a new building. As a result, it is very important for the restaurant's intangible cultural heritage that dates back more than 130 years to be protected, he said.

Zhang said hutong face the same situation. People who once lived there were driven away to outside the Fifth Ring Road of Beijing, and moved to new buildings. Disappearing with the hutong is the special relationship and emotions between old neighbors, a very important feature of old Beijing.

Additionally, some traditional art and performance styles such as zhongfan (flagpole juggling) are vanishing quickly with the disappearance of hutong. Without a stage and carrier, people are at a loss.

A 2009 photo of Xinghua Hutong from the online archive. Photo: Courtesy of Zhang Wei

Rosy prospects

However, there is still reason for optimism about the website. Although the server has been moved to Hong Kong, and despite the quick pace of hutong destruction in Beijing, the website remains an important source of information about Beijing.

Cheng Gen, a 67-year-old man who has been active in the photography group since 2005, told Metropolitan that he would never quit.

In the old man's opinion, the old Beijing website is a very important stage for people with the same interests to communicate and organize activities. He is one of the rabid fans and followers of Zhang and his photography group website.

If one day the website dies, I will be sad, but I would not abandon taking photos, said Cheng Gen. And also the hutong, they are dying, but if I search carefully, I still can find new things to record every week.

Qu Zuming, a retired professor of cultural relic protection of Tsinghua University, said the website of old Beijing culture is of great significance, and Zhang, who was his student, is not alone in maintaining the website.

I am a professor, but also an old Beijing resident living in hutong, said Qu. My family has been living here for over one hundred years. In my life I have been devoting myself to protecting old Beijing culture, and I am very glad to see this website online, making my work public and better known.

Zhang is now considering publishing a book about old Beijing culture. He said that while urbanization and demolition have been developing at a fast pace, it is necessary to make people remember what the old things were like. The website, in a way, is a tool for collecting materials for the book. Zhang now is collecting materials from his peers on the website, for all of their works and photos are free to download. He said he would start writing the book after he gets to the age of retirement.

The final fate of the website, according to Zhang, is to be donated to the country. Zhang said he is not the owner of it, and he is only managing it. But now is not the time.

I still need more attention and care from the government, and also a comprehensive agreement which can ensure the long-term and healthy development of the website, said Zhang.

Then I will donate the website and all visual materials to the nation, because Beijing belongs to our country, and old Beijing culture and its charm are the same.

I am the mudfish in a bunch of eels, said Zhang, referring to the culture circle in Beijing, If there is no such a little fish in the big ones, the big ones would stay still and get smothered to die. I am the little one, but I am active and sometimes noisy to keep others alive, until I die.


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