Hua Xinmin, who is half French and half Chinese, was born and raised in a hutong in Beijing that dates back to the Yuan Dynasty, making her an authentic “Hutong Kid.” Hutongs are alleys formed by lines of traditional courtyard residences. Many neighborhoods were formed by joining one courtyard to another to form a hutong and then joining one hutong to another.
Hua’s grandfather, Hua Nangui, was a famous civil engineer and an architect in China. Her father, Hua Lanhong, was an expert at home construction. That father and son team contributed their entire lifetimes to Beijing home construction. At the end of the Cultural Revolution, Hua returned to Paris with her family to settle down where she studied French literature. In 1997, she returned to Beijing with her husband, who was assigned to a project there.
At that time, Beijing was opening up to the idea of becoming a world-class city and aggressively carrying out reconstruction projects. Hua was shocked to find these courtyards being bulldozed one after another. The property owners were threatened and intimidated by the authorities, who forced them to leave their ancestral homes with no legal avenue for redress. This drove Hua to take immediate action.
Hua rode her bicycle under the scorching sun to inspect a large number of these hutongs and courtyards. She marked the ones to be demolished on a map and sent the details to the Beijing Municipal Commission of City Planning. Additionally, Hua wrote to the relevant departments and made phone calls to make clear her suggestions. Together with photographer Ye Jinzhong, she knocked on the doors of Beijing citizens to collect their stories and document a disappearing way of life. They visited 112 courtyards in 57 hutongs in Dongcheng and Xicheng districts to take pictures of those courtyards scheduled to be bulldozed.
In 2003, Hua Xinmin and other experts who are devoted to protecting old houses in Beijing held a photo exhibition entitled “Retain Courtyards — the Soul of Beijing” at the Beijing Working People’s Palace of Culture. However, the exhibition faced tremendous pressure and ended early.
Hua repeatedly lost her battles against the bulldozers. Just as she was busy standing up for the historical Qing Prince mansion, which was facing demolition, the ancestral home designed by her grandfather was earmarked for demolition. Despite holding the title to the property issued by the People’s Republic of China, she could not stop the developer from bulldozing and even lost the lawsuit. The site, which was once the well-preserved building of the Yuan Dynasty, now has the modern-looking Hong Kong Jockey Club’s Beijing clubhouse.
Hua said: “I don’t feel defeated by the law as there are provisions clearly stipulated in Chinese law. I am defeated by power. Those with power treat the provisions of the law as nothing and the judges only protect the interest of the government.”
The bulldozers follow the decisions of the Chinese authorities — luxurious hotels, first-class buildings, top commercial streets, and clubs all represent financial power that supersedes and destroys the thousands of years of cultural heritage and history. This has crushed the ancestral heart of every single individual.
Fighting together with Hua is a group of experts, scholars, and volunteers who have no political power. They race against time to fend off the bulldozers, contend with developers, and talk to local authorities. Although they have so far failed to change the results, they still fight on to defend the preservation of historical culture and buildings.
Hua is tireless. Every day when she wakes up and opens her eyes, she only thinks of how to stop or slow down those actions of destroying evidence. What evidence is destroyed? The evidence of Chinese civilization that existed on the Earth is destroyed. In Beijing, the evidence is those hutongs and courtyards that are still standing today.
Hua asks: “Looking up and down, it’s so bright; how can you bear to destroy it? Today in the 21st century, there are still such violent acts in the world to destroy heavenly heritage!”
Hua wonders: “Why are those secretly smashing glasses, dismantling walls, and writing threatening letters still winning in court? Isn’t this absence of respect for the rule of law a major problem?”
She laments: “There are no souls and flesh in Beijing. People have moved away, the courtyards were destroyed, flowers and trees all over the city were chopped down and destroyed. The most beautiful and richest city in the East has turned into rubble in a short period of time. Every inch of the earth and ground contains the traces of our culture. From now on, you have to erase your memory, as if nothing has happened here!”
After coming into contact with a large number of cases in which the courtyards were demolished, Hua stepped in deeper and turned to landowners to expose the astounding facts of the Chinese government plundering private properties on peoples’ land. She collected materials, wrote articles, published news, and continues her battle.
Many readers, including the younger generations, were moved to tears by Hua’s hard work. Her battle and “battle lines” were linked to the Chinese people who have never met each other before, the once beautiful land and the sorrows of being destroyed were the evidence. She said: “If we do not respect our own culture, hoping to get other peoples’ respect in the world is just empty talk. Please preserve the last of historic Beijing and leave it to the descendants of the Chinese people as well as to all mankind.”
Translated by Chua BC