Written by Terence Zhao
At the Bamboo Bicycles Beijing workshop, we spoke mostly with Prima, who volunteers to help run the workshop three days a week. She previously studied in America and lived in Shanghai for several years, although she is a native of Beijing. Our visit began with Prima going over the materials and steps necessary to create their bamboo bicycle frames, which uses only bamboo and a few materials for adhesion, and takes only two working days to complete. Handlebars and wheels can be from old bicycles.
She also briefly described the organization’s logistics. BBB has two full-time employees in addition to Prima, although an MIT grant awarded the year before allowed them to hire six students for a 9-week period last summer. The workshop charges ￥2000 for each bamboo frame made, of which 320 or so have been made in the past 3 years. The price, Prima claims, could cover only the barest essentials for the workshop - namely materials and rent.
I asked Prima about the demographics of the workshop's clientele, which she described as being about 50% foreigners. My first impression was that the workshop to be somewhat detached from the neighborhood it supposedly serves, and this definitely fed that impression. I drew a (admittedly somewhat unfair) comparison at this point between BBB and the tourist-ferrying rickshaws - both were attractions that bring in non-local visitors into the hutongs but do not cater to actual residents. But, Prima points out that the workshop does try to integrate itself into its surrounding community, such as the two public bicycles parked outside that the workshop provides for the community’s use (although I didn’t see them used while there), and the fact that the shop regularly loans out tools and provides free materials to neighbors who need them. And, while not mentioned, I also noticed some public displays and art in the immediate vicinity of the workshop that appear to be their handiwork. From what I could tell, BBB had a genuine desire and willingness to put in effort to integrate itself into the hutong community, despite the overwhelmingly non-local demographic it serves, although the efficacy of those efforts seem doubtful.
I then asked Prima what she saw as the future of Beijing through the lens of her hutong. She began by dividing the present inhabitants of the hutongs into four categories: first, the old Beijingers who have been in the city for multiple generations; second, the poor migrants; third, foreigners; and fourth, young people, among whose ranks she counted herself. She believed that this fourth group was the only one that was able to renew and revitalize the hutong neighborhoods. The first group, she claimed, was either moving out or “dying out,” and their ability to shape the future of the hutong was thus diminishing with their ranks; the second group - the poor migrants - simply did not have the capital (both social and economic) to bring about any improvements to the neighborhood; and the third group - foreigners - are temporary residents and unreliable for long-term transformation. She concluded that the fourth group was thus responsible for taking the decaying hutong and remaking them into something of their own.
I found the language that Prima used to be extremely curious because she made a point to clarify that the second group she spoke about was defined by their low socioeconomic standing, not simply their origin - indeed, one of Prima’s coworkers, whom we briefly met, had an accent from southern China, but was most certainly considered part of the fourth group. She also mentioned other such incursions by young people in the neighborhood, including a calligraphy studio run by someone originally from Taiwan (also technically a “migrant”, but not considered one) and a cafe-art gallery hybrid. Like BBB, none of these places are profitable.
To me, this is very reminiscent of patterns from multiple case studies first-wave gentrification that I have encountered, such as in some parts of Brooklyn, where young, middle-class people looking for a non-mainstream lifestyle (in this case as it was in, say, Brooklyn: living in an urban core rather than a suburb) move into a decaying urban neighborhood and transform it culturally using, for the most part, sweat or non-monetary capital - that is, their own time and energy. And, according to historical patterns, this will eventually lead to, among other things, the hutong regaining value as prime real-estate and the commercialization of the new culture that the gentrifiers brought in.
And whether that second stage of gentrification does occur is another question altogether. For now, however, it was clear that these newcomers to/gentrifiers of the hutong, the “fourth group”, is bringing new life to the hutong and, with it, a new culture that has the potential to reshape the existing fabric, as gentrification often does. And, in a way, the bamboo bicycle itself feels like a metaphor for the changes that BBB, Prima, and her cohort can bring to the hutong - taking the old, be it a bike or a neighborhood, and replacing the heart with something new.
Written by Lance Hilderbrand
Our first day of the seminar began with a walk to Tsinghua University, where the Stanford students met the Tsinghua students for the first time via orientational exercises that showed the diverse urban backgrounds within the group.
Afterwards, the Stanford and Tsinghua students walked over to the Tsinghua University cafeteria for some lunch. Well, some students preferred a scooter over walking.
The food was pretty good!
After lunch, the group took a bus over to inner city Beijing to get suited up for our bike tour three hour bike tour to orient us to the city - make sure your brakes work beforehand!
Our first leg of the tour took us through the Yu'er Hutong. A hutong is a is a form of dense urban neighborhood, consisting of very narrow streets and alleyways.
The homes in the hutong are without bathrooms, so the community shares communal restrooms and shower houses. It was regarded as a traditional custom for the local Beijingers, but not for all the Chinese students.
Biking through the hutong is a great way to test your agility!
Because of the area where those hutongs land - the center of Beijing, all of those old buildings on the sides of hutong deserve more than millions of dollars, which could prove how important role the location of real estate play in affecting the house price.
Our next stop was at the Bell and Drum towers. Both towers lie along a north/south axis, in line with each other and the Forbidden City, among other landmarks.
We then biked along the Ten Temple Sea (actually three lakes).
It was here we tried our hand (or feet, rather) at jianzi, a sort of Chinese hacky sack.
From the Ten Temple Sea, we biked over to the Forbidden City gate to snap a photo before heading onto the widest street in China.
The widest street in China consists of fourteen lanes total, two for bikes. Crossing this behemoth of a street was daunting enough on a bike, I can only imagine what it would be like as a pedestrian!
Some policeman stopped our bikes and cut off the traffic when we were about to cross the road. At first we just thought that there might be some important politicians or visters using the road, and then after a black car coming across the road and entering the Sea Palace, together with a row of police cars, we came to realise that it was Chairman Xi who was in the black car. It could be an interesting coincidence in our tour.
Why did the students cross the road? To get to the National Center for the Performing Arts, of course! This unique building, often dubbed "The Giant Egg", is surrounded by a moat and contains Beijing's finest opera house.
The performing arts center was the last stop on our grand bike tour of inner city Beijing. After returning to Tsinghua University, students split their different ways to find dinner. Some of us decided hot pot would be a nice way to conclude our eventful first day in Beijing - bon appetite!
Our Beijing studio comes to an end, as the project teams presented the outcomes of their fieldwork at Tsinghua University to an enthusiastic audience. Our course will be continuing over remote collaboration for the next ten weeks as part of the International Urbanization Seminar. Stay tuned for future developments as we continue to refine our projects!
Transportation: The Modern Day Hutong
Friday started a little desperately: we weren't sure what kind of survey style would provide the most insight; we couldn't agree on the most time-efficient way to maximize information yield. After a bit of debate, we settled on the exact street our capstone presentation would be displayed on -- Tieshu Byway, which morphed into Dashilan West Street, and lastly Dashilan Commercial Street -- as our research destination, and off we went.
Our first plan of attack was to conduct a broad survey of the space, so we decided to count how many stationary vehicles were present in a 10-minute walk of the byway. After deciding on a particular intersection to start the count -- right next to a restaurant called 欣悅 -- we walked down the street, noting the position -- left vs right -- the vehicle was parked on the street and wrote down abbreviations roughly corresponding to their location on the street. After 10 minutes, we stopped right next to a boy's bathroom, as it was a good pinpoint location. We found bikes to be the majority, even discounting the giant row that a bike rental shop simply left on the side of the road. Do the bikes not get rained on or lose value when dust settles on them? Curious.
We also did a stationary count of vehicles and pedestrians that passed by in a 30-minute interval, as displayed in the pie chart above. We see an overwhelming majority of pedestrians, with electric vehicles a close second.
Afterwards, we stationed ourselves next to a particularly congested portion of the street -- in front of Alice's Tea House -- and videotaped cars trying to pass through this human-created bottleneck. We struck up a conversation with the shop owner, who went on to give a brief lesson in Chinese history, describe the horrible driving conditions through this particular hutong, and suggest ways to improve car usage in Beijing. We also spotted two foreigners taking pictures of us further down the road, so we decided to approach and ask for their opinion. This turned out to be a gold mine, as the foreigners had lived in Beijing for 25 years each; one was a translator, the other worked as a contractor in the private sector. They produced a unique spin on the narrative: the story of someone who was once foreign but have since now assimilated into the culture.
This morning, we set out to try the Cognitive Mapping strategy. As most people we approached and interviewed refused to try drawing a map, we made a sketch based on the verbal description of a particular old woman sitting on the steps outside her house. We also realized, through subsequent interviews, that people didn't move much along the hutong space. Most either commuted to this hutong to work or lived behind their shop and walked out only to use the bathroom or buy groceries.
Advice to people wanting to replicate the study: people sometimes give you answers to questions you haven't even thought of asking. Our attempt to widen our questioning strategy helped a surprising amount today.
Our class and teaching team traveled across Beijing to visit the Energy Foundation China offices today, where we met with Dr. Kevin Mo, Buildings Program Director. Dr. Mo has generously agreed to serve as one of the advisers for the hutong residential energy usage team and will continue to stay involved with the seminar in the months to come.
Take a Whiff: This miniature hutong turned out to be teeming with a rather bizarre, oddly non-combinatory mixture of smells. I felt like an overly curious puppy as I walked down the street, turning my face sharply from one store to another to reconcile each smell with a particular item or person.
In My Shoes: In this part I just kept my eyes on an old lady who was walking along the river, with a stick as well as an umbrella in her hands. I spent quite a time to figure out the reason of her visit. She walked so slowly, had a hard time geting through the steep incline of the beidge and did not give much notice to others. But finally I found out she was there to buy some stuff becaus she stopped at several shops at the time she passed by. I would like to believe she is going to buy some souvenirs for her grand-children of her friends. So you can never be sure that a place like HouHai will definitely deter any groups of people. And a public place cannot get embrassed about the vist of an unexpected visitor.
Tick Tock: In this part I just focused on a narrow bridge, which plays an important in traffic of the whole place. It lies acroos the river and serves all the cars, bikes, rickshas and people. We watched and observed the traffic through it and saw some unpleasant moment: Like a ricksha almost hit a bike comes through the bridge, from other side of the river. Like a car drove through the bridge and splashed some water on the people who were standing on the side of the bridge and taking pictures. In a word, the bridge seems to be an efficient route connect the both sides of the water but lack of design and management.
What's Your Stance?: At 4:29 PM on a hutong off of Dashilar Street, my group and I stumbled upon a mini park. On a trapezoidal plot of land formed by the fork of two diverging roads was a small sunken paved area. To my surprise, four large groups of 4-8 elderly men, 28 in total, gathered around tables playing games of Chinese chess. They crowded around the tables they set up, half standing and gesturing loudly to the game. The other half sat in chairs they brought along or on the steps formed by the sunken nature of the plaza. I stood on the corner and observed the environment and their posture for 6 minutes. No other people walked through the plaza—everyone left the old men to their enthusiastic games. The men leaned over or onto the boards, reached across their tables, and gently shoved others standing near them to point to a suggested move. Electric bikes and younger (middle-aged) pedestrians dominated the ~4 person per 30 second rate of traffic around the plaza. The traffic and commotion of shop keepers marketing their goods on the adjacent roads made the street a somewhat busy space, yet this plaza was a refuge for the elderly men of the area—what a pleasant oasis of community gathering we stumbled upon that afternoon.
This park was pleasant evidence of how urban planning can foster a community. A much needed clearing amongst the dense hutong of the area provided a meeting place for community members to enjoy favorite pastimes. While I’m not sure if the lack of diversity of occupants of the park is a positive of negative feature for the community, the park did seem to create a refuge for the elderly men.
We welcomed our guest speaker Yang Jiang from the China Sustainable Transportation Center to discuss case studies of developing robust and healthy transportation systems in Copenhagen and Chongqing, China. Mr. Jiang will continue to serve as a technical advisor for the City of Cycles and hutong transportation ecosystem projects.