There was once a time when the most ominous sign you could see on a wall in Beijing was 拆 (chāi) – the character scrawled across buildings soon to be demolished to make way for the next new apartment complex or shopping mall:
In the summer of last year, however, it was superseded by a new indicator of impending doom: a pile of bricks.
Once the pile of bricks appears on the side of the road, the workers who come to block up the shopfront of the nearest store or café are never far behind.
This is one part of a wider campaign to reclaim “Beijing for the Beijingers”, which has also resulted in the closure of various food and clothing markets, as well as a new requirement for Chinese nationals lacking a Beijing hukou to register at their local police station (as foreigners have always had to do). In fact, the brickings represent an intersection between several bigger movements, like the gradual squeeze on cash-in-hand, untaxed work (which the rise of mobile payment is surely going to impact before too long) and the imperative to keep construction workers3 gainfully employed.
It’s an oddly passive-aggressive move. Aggressive enough that the presence of police officers is often required to dispel any potential unpleasantness, but stopping short of actually forcing these places to immediately stop doing business. And it isn’t an especially unpopular policy. On a conceptual level, the justification for the campaign – eliminating unwanted riff-raff to make Beijing a cleaner, more modern city – is something a lot of people are happy to buy into. (And it is true that in enforcing zoning laws, Beijing is basically coming into line with the way cities tend to be organised in the west.) Now that the brickings are mostly over, the workers have moved onto the less controversial task of road repairs, reinforcing the idea that these forced closures were just another inevitable step in the beautification process.
Though cornershops selling the basic necessities of life – bottled water, instant noodles, cigarettes, baijiu – are also being bricked, the vast majority of neighbours who have no interest in flat whites or IPAs will be glad to see the back of their local hipster taproom.4 Gentrification doesn’t really work the same way in Beijing as it does elsewhere. Take a poor neighbourhood, the story usually goes, bring in a handful of creative bohemian types to make the place more appealing, until they can’t afford to live there any more because the real estate developers have taken over. In Beijing you have locals who, in real terms, are much poorer than any of the original residents of Hackney or Harlem, living on land that is – theoretically – already astronomically expensive. Which means a fancy new roastery on the corner isn’t going to make a difference to housing prices, and you don’t have the option of selling up (for an inflated price) and moving out if you don’t like the way the neighbourhood is going.
It’s making Beijing a far less fun place to live. Yet the inconvenience for consumers of coffee and beer like me is the tiniest fraction of the devastation it means for the people who devoted their lives to these places, sinking their savings into their passions and gradually building up a following of loyal customers over the years. Many have given up completely. Others have found new homes in shopping mall basements. But some are still persisting, around, over, and between the bricks.
- Neither “slum” nor “shanty” is an entirely satisfactory translation of 棚户区 (pénghùqū), which doesn’t have quite the same connotations.
- Just like how “bungalow” doesn’t really work as a translation of 平房 (píngfáng), even if it is the closest English equivalent.
- Who are also from outside of Beijing, but who have never been under any illusions that they would be welcome to put down roots in the capital.
- The presence of late night drinkers, in particular, is a frequent source of friction in residential areas.