By Xinhua Writers Bai Xu and Gui Tao
BEIJING, Jan. 6 (Xinhua) -- Watching the workers busy unloading the furniture from the truck and moving into her house, the 60-year-old Yang Li smiled in content.
"My biggest wish has been fulfilled," said the bespectacled old lady while examining her refurbished bungalow.
The courtyard of Dongsi Sitiao No. 59 in Beijing's Dongcheng District was built in the Qing Dynasty, in which Yang has lived for nearly half a century.
Last overhaul of the house Yang could remember was in 1978 after the appalling Tangshan earthquake that killed some 240,000 people in north China and ruined an entire city near Beijing.
As time passes by, the house became too shabby to live in. "When it poured outside, there was shower inside," she recalled, "and we have to call the housing management office at midnight."
Use of water and electricity posed another problem. In Yang's courtyard there lived five households, all of whom shared one electricity meter and one water meter. "Disputes occurred whenever we pay electricity and water fees, as it was hard to decide the proportion," she said.
Her troubles were echoed by 56-year-old Chen Yuying from Fusuijing No. 56 of Xicheng District. "The old name of this area a century ago was a good reflection of our life: bitter water well," she joked.
But Chen was reluctant to leave. "Compared with bungalows, I don't like living in apartment buildings where neighbors kept distance from each other," she said, adding that in a courtyard, all households were like a big family, in spite of disputes sometimes.
Skyrocketing house price is another concern. "The price of apartments in this area is about 20,000 yuan per square meter," she said, "without so much money, I would have to move to the outskirts."
Chen was informed of the refurbishing by government last September. "They told me that government would foot the bill, and I could hardly believe it at first."
The retired accountant, together with her parents and husband, moved to live with her neighbor whose house is to be refurbished later, on September 26, while their 26-year-old son rented a house.
Two and a half months later, they moved back, and startled to see the 80-square-meter house rebuilt with the original bricks, the floor repaved, the meters separated and, following her request, workers built a toilet there so that she would not have to use the stinking public toilet any more.
In 2007, the Beijing Municipal Government earmarked one billion yuan for refurbishing and upgrading ancient courtyards in the downtown Dongcheng, Xicheng, Chongwen and Xuanwu districts.
Work on 1,474 courtyards in 44 alleys with 9,635 households involved shall be finished by the end of this June, according to the Beijing Municipal Commission of Urban Planning.
For those houses owned by the government, residents don't need to spend a cent for the work, while private house owners have to pay a small amount. The exact amount varies in districts, but is normally several hundreds yuan per square meter.
No traditional houses are to be razed any more and construction of new buildings shall be strictly controlled, noted Kong Fanzhi, director of the Beijing Municipal Administration of Cultural Heritage.
"Beijing boasts a history of 3,000 years as a city and more than 800 years as a capital," Kong said emotionally, "It represents the zenith of city construction in ancient China, in which Hutongs (alleys) and courtyards are the cells. Therefore, the city should be protected as a whole."
How to protect Beijing as an ancient city, or is it necessary to protect it at all, has been under debate by officials and experts for over 60 years, during which fancy buildings mushroomed in the 62.5-square-kilometer area, while gray brick residential houses collapsed before bulldozers in a facelift frenzy, along with the memories they carried down through generations.
According to a report by the official People's Daily in January2007, about 500 Hutongs still survived, in comparison to the more than 3,000 in early 1980s.
Local officials marked out 25 areas in the inner city in 2002 where traditional houses and alleys will be preserved, and later expanded to 33, accounting for 29 percent of the inner city.
Although real estate developers built some courtyard-styled houses, the sale goes very slow.
"Those 'fake cultural heritages' are too costly for local residents," said Xu Pingfang, 77-year-old renowned professor of archaeology and director of the China Archaeological Society, "while Beijingers are forced out and the houses are purchased by new-riches, Beijing is losing its flavor."
Hailing the strategy of protecting the city as a whole a "great breakthrough", Xu became optimistic. "Fortunately it is not too late," said the excited professor, "such 'micro-recycle' pattern preserving both the house and the people living in it deserves promoting in elsewhere of China."
Xie Chensheng, 84-year-old professor in cultural heritage protection and consultant of the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, believed the measure is "practical and sensible".
"The houses are of ancient styles while people's life has changed dramatically through the hundreds of years," he said, "Balancing the protection of heritage and improvement of people's life has been a lingering problem."
To Cao Yuejin, member of the Beijing Municipal Commission of Urban Planning, however, protection is just the first step.
"We would encourage some people in the inner city to move out," he said, adding that the relocation would be optional. "The encouragement includes compensation, privilege in buying low-cost houses, etc," he said.
A report by the China News Service suggests that population in the inner city is about 1.8 million. Population density of the city has become three to five times of that in major western cities like London and New York.
But this takes time. "Facilities, especially educational institutes and hospitals, in the outer city should be well developed so as to ensure a better life for people there," said Kong Fanzhi.
Talking about the Olympic Games slated for this August, the director has a wish. "I hope foreigners would not only visit the Forbidden City, but spare some time to take a stroll in the old Hutongs, so that they could have a deeper understanding of the profound Chinese culture."
Yang Li, the old lady, also has a wish. "I want to watch the Olympic Games in my courtyard," she beamed while cautioning workers from house-moving company to heed their steps.
Her dream doesn't seem distant as her 87-year-old mother has been nagging every day to move back. "We would be back in this spring," she said.