For the past six years, Zhang Wei and his website, oldbeijing.net, have carried out a grass-roots campaign to record and preserve Beijing's disappearing architecture and culture. He talks to Wang Yingyao about why he took up the struggle against the bulldozers.
My family lived in an old courtyard house deep in a hutong in Dongdajie and, as I watched it being torn down six years ago, I realised something was disappearing and would never return. I took a piece of timber from the window support as a memento and decided to do something. That's when I started the Old Beijing website and began collecting articles and pictures about the culture of old Beijing, including its architecture, its classical forms of entertainment and language. I started a forum on my website in 2004 and was excited to find that I was not alone in my cause. The next year, as the destruction of Beijing's hutongs accelerated, the forum activists and I sensed the need to at least record the places with our cameras before the bulldozer arrived.
What does Old Beijing do?
It is more than a website. We have two teams - the photography team and the folklore team. The photography team goes out to take pictures of hutongs almost every weekend. It has 20 to 30 regular members and sometimes it attracts more than 100 people. About 80 per cent of them are young people and some are foreigners. We have amassed a collection of around 200,000 hutong pictures and about half of the places photographed have already disappeared forever. Once, we found out that the district-protected Tieshan Temple was being pulled down and we complained to the relevant government department but nobody took any notice of us. So we turned to the media and whipped up a fervent discussion on our forum. The pressure finally stopped the destruction of the temple and led to a restoration programme. It can never be restored completely but we still feel like we won.
In the process of exploring the lanes and courtyards, we also collect folklore or stories from residents. For example, we discovered the location of the first plate-making factory in Beijing. The other team, the folk-custom team, has just started taking shape and has begun performing cross-talk - a traditional form of comic dialogue - in tea houses and parks. The website receives an average of 20,000 visitors per day and the forum has about 1,000 active members. Personally, I sometimes help preside over weddings according to traditional rituals.
How do you support Old Beijing's activities?
Basically, we survive on donations, but they are scarce. Some overseas NGOs want to give us money, but I am afraid that they might want to do it for their own political capital, so I turn them down. I have 10 people working voluntarily for Old Beijing. And when some folklore or history scholars write articles, they often publish them first on Old Beijing and never mention money. They know we are just surviving and are non-profit. I am often worried about my next meal. I am 30 and have nothing - neither money nor girlfriend. I really wish I could do more for my parents. I have given everything to Old Beijing. It has been six years! At the same time, I feel like the registered Old Beijing has become a famous brand, and its intangible value will accrue steadily, but I am not sure how to make use of it, and I am cautious about it.
Are there any risks with Old Beijing?
You know, anything about demolition is sensitive in Beijing. When we take photos, some unidentified guys often follow us. One time, team member Xiao Juan was harassed by a group of men and one formally dressed man tried to take away her camera and attack her. Fortunately, she was quick enough to run away. The pictures were most important. And one day I received a call from the Web supervisors telling me to pull an article about land bought by some French people. I have to declare on the website that we are not an organisation, just individuals. But I hope Old Beijing can at least develop into an academy. Our focus is shifting from architecture to intangible heritage - the latter has less to do with demolition or the property industry so there may be less pressure on us.
Does Old Beijing go against the "New Beijing New Olympics" idea? I was wondering why it was not, "Old Beijing New Olympics".
In my opinion, the hutongs are blood vessels of Beijing and the courtyards are its cells. They are unique to Beijing, even to the world. The current situation seems strange. On one hand, Beijing ruthlessly tears down old homes, temples and walls; on the other hand, retro-styled buildings that would only fool foreigners are put up in a rush.