Waiting in Vain

The modern transformation of Beijing involves the demolition of hutong, 800-year-old courtyard alleys in the city center. In the 1950s, there were more than 3000 hutong in Beijing; only 1000 remain. Today 70% of the hutong courtyard-style houses face a property rights dilemma and potential demolition.

Conversations around demolition in Beijing tend to focus on conflict between historical preservation, impatient city development, resettlement and compensation issues among residents, developers and governors. Less publicly heard are the voices of the hutong homeowners. As redevelopment bulldozers approach, those homeowners feel the urgency.

This project is a series of creative camera obscura environmental portraits of Beijing hutong homeowners and a short film documenting the shooting process. The photographer turns the hutong rooms into the camera itself, and takes long-exposure portraits inside the camera. Over 60 years, socially-marginalized hutong homeowners witnessed the fast-changing redevelopment of new Beijing. This project is about waiting, waiting without recourse, fatalistically and unpromisingly, waiting in the dimness, waiting in the midst of memories, while the space outside changes rapidly and the time within moves slowly.

vimeo password: beijing

Between the late 1950s and early 1960s in Beijing, over 6000 private family houses were socialized and became jingzufang – state-managed rental housing. The jingzufang homeowners were forced to lease their houses to the state who would reallocate the houses to tenants. During the Cultural Revolution, their title deeds were destroyed or confiscated. After the Cultural Revolution, on average they only got the title deed of three rooms out of the entire house back. Homeowners had to share their house with tenants for as much as three decades; they saw the tenants acting as owners and building additional rooms making the jingzufang property rights issue more complicated.

After the reform in the 1980s, with skyrocketing land prices in the inner city of Beijing, business-minded officials started to make residents move out to demolish hutong homes for redevelopment. Since it was easier to remove tenants, the governors made restitution policies to protect tenants’ interests instead of the homeowners’. In most cases, after the tenants left with compensation, the rooms were demolished or left empty, or the homeowners returned to their homes with no deeds guaranteed, meaning the homes may be torn down at anytime in the future.

This hutong homeowners’ property right dilemma has been the cause of great suffering and the government gives them no answer. Groups comprising 200 families continue to write petition letters and visit government agencies weekly. Most of them are over 55, retired and are excluded from socialist welfare housing allocation. Their collective efforts haven’t resulted in government action.


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