While exploring the shops and restaurants right around campus, I began to realize there were whole sections that, despite looking otherwise totally ordinary, never seemed to be open. I soon found out that an entire portion of hou jie (literally "rear street;" a bustling street behind campus full of lively small businesses) was to be knocked down to build apartments.
My RA, Lila, resident Beijing expert, told us all about this great wholesale clothes market by the Beijing Zoo, aptly called Zoo Market. She then mentioned, Oh, by the way, we should probably go tomorrow morning, they usually tear things down in the afternoon. Apparently Zoo Market was to be destroyed any day now.
One of our professors, Jeremiah, who led us on the Tiananmen Trifecta, also recently took us on a tour of fangjia hutong. A hutong is a system of alleyways that connect any number of courtyard residences, which used to house government officials and other elites and today still house many Beijing families. In a gradual state of decline for hundreds of years, both in quality and popularity, hutongs have still managed to stick around. Until now, that is. Slowly but surely the city is shutting them down.
What's going on?
Turns out, the government is in the middle of an initiative to "beautify" the city. This means forcing small business owners and hutong residents out of the center of the city. Beijing, because of its circular layout, has always been heavily concentrated in the center. Lately it has continued to spread farther and wider, and displacing entrepreneurs is one way of accelerating that phenomenon.
I truly admire the persistence of Chinese entrepreneurs. Despite half the street being doomed for destruction, the other side of hou jie has seen two new businesses crop up in the past few weeks. While knowing that a telltale pile of bricks could suddenly appear outside their door, a harbinger that a crew will soon begin to lay them into a wall in front of your establishment, business owners still take the risk. And when that fateful pile of bricks arrives, they pick up and move their business elsewhere, sometimes even just across the street. Zoo Market, for example, when first forced out of its original building, moved to the two buildings directly adjacent, leaving the first building empty and ominous.
Maybe this initiative will make Beijing more beautiful, or maybe it will just make "empty and ominous" a much more widely applicable description of the city.