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Resolving disputes in a rapidly transforming society

Demolished homes in a Beijing hutong Homes in Beijing's hutongs are being gradually demolished. (Connie Wu photos)
Demolishing neighborhoods, a never-ending conversation, and the march of "progress" hastened by tourists

 Bikes line a narrow Beijing alley
Bicycles line a narrow alley in this Beijing "hutong," or traditional neighborhood.

BEIJING — Rubble and half-standing walls are now common sights in Beijing's "hutongs." These traditional neighborhoods, most of them built during China's imperial days, are being torn apart slowly to make way for more modern buildings. Although my research subject is being chipped away, I was still able to roam around the remaining hutongs near Houhai park, exploring various little alleys and studying the social lives in this ancient community.

At one of those demolished places, I climbed through the wreckage and stepped into what used to be someone’s home, but was now little more than a pile of rubble. Over in the corner stood a small door, tempting me to find out what was behind it. I kicked my way through the door, only to find another home! A feisty little dog came running and chased me out. It was unbelievable to discover a home existing in the midst of all that destruction. It must be depressing to go home every night to find your neighborhood being destroyed piece by piece.

From then on, I decided to explore with more caution. Along the way, I met an 84-year-old granny, a very social woman but suffering from severe short-term memory loss.

Granny with memory loss
This granny's memory loss made conversing a challenge.

"So where are you from?" she asked.
"United States," I replied.
"What are you doing here?"
"Your parents let you come all this way by yourself?"
After a pause: "Where are you from?"
"Uh, United States."
"You came all the way to travel, eh?"
"Errrr … no … I'm researching."
"United States is really far from Beijing. Your parents let you come by yourself?"
Oh no…

We somehow never moved past this cycle of question and answer, except for a few times when she complained about the hot weather. Although she was one interesting granny, with a whole lot of the same questions, I had to move on.

Next, I walked by a large construction site. A huge pit had been dug and workers were busy clearing away the remaining debris. As I raised my camera to photograph the site, a man quickly stopped me. "Why?" I asked. "Because the workers do not want their photos to be taken," he said. I didn’t see what the big deal was, but this was something I frequently ran into, being unable to photograph construction sites and migrant laborers working.

As I turned the corner, I found myself in an area bustling with tourists. Oh great, I thought. Not only is the city demolishing traditional neighborhoods, but officials also have converted a large section of the remaining hutongs into tourist centers, complete with bars and trendy restaurants playing British pop music. What have you done to my research subjects!? I silently lamented.

 Grannies watch tourists
A pair of grannies watch the tourists invading their once-traditional neighborhood.

Two old grannies quietly looked on as a group of Japanese tourists stopped to take photos in front of an ancient temple-like structure. A group of Westerners quickly followed. I wondered what went through the grannies' minds to see their neighborhood transformed from a quiet community into a commercial district with foreigners entering at will. How does this ancient generation, one that endured the feudal society before the Communist takeover, and then lived through the Mao era, cope with the modern period? What do they think of their grandkids listening to rap and watching movies like American Pie? Was it sadness in their eyes that my camera captured as they watched people from all over the world posing in front of their homes?