Chinese cities, with their imposing residential towers and busy streets, can create an impression of alienation – how can one survive there? Is not this environment completely against the human?
But these towers – and smaller residential spaces – are organised in a way particular to China: the Xiao Qu (literally, ‘small district’). A Xiao Qu – my friend Aaron spontaneously translates it ‘community’ – is a group of buildings organised around a common yard or laneway. That space is not locked out from the street – you don’t need a key to get in, or a special nod from the front-door person. But it is not open on all sides either – there are just a few too many walls and fences to make it easy to get in. Generally, the Xiao Qu only has a couple of doorways, that mark a passage into the semi-domestic space shared by the community living there.
Xiao Qus are not purely residential spaces. There can be little gardens, a playground for children, but also, sometimes, windows on the wall selling water, juice and cigarettes, even mini-supermarkets, little hawker-style restaurants, or fruit and vegetable sellers offering their goods at the back of a van, or in an old style cart.
Some Xiao Qus, in Wu Da Dao or the old French concession area, can be very beautiful, ornate even. Nonetheless, they remain semi-private space, which people use it for all sorts of purpose – storage, parking, laundry.
Xiao Qus are the inner space of internal interactions, between neighbours, from window to window or on a stool – with its intimate dramas and secrets. This is the world painted by Wang Anyi in The Song of Everlasting Regrets, that most masterful of domestic novels.
In one of his essays, Jacques Gernet discusses one major difference between European and Chinese cities. European cities are built around an agora, a central square where the people of the city met to discuss political concerns, and take part in the city rituals. Not so in China, where cities are built around a grid of parallel streets, without a central square. Tian An Men, that symbolic centre of communist China, is an open space so monumental it cannot serve as a discussion ground for the people. Attempts to use it as an agora have not proven very successful.
The space for freedom was not the agora, but a smaller residential district, where the community had a relatively high level of independance from all external powers – in terms of self organisation and internal debate. In the capital, the Hu Tongs are these traditional ‘free spaces’ – nothing but a local form Xiao Qu – a network of laneways connecting houses, defining an interstitial space somewhere between public and private. No wonder there is so much passion associated to their destruction.
I have read and heard how replacing traditional hutongs with towers, and moving in – or up – the residents, is an act of violence against communities. My students were telling me you no longer know your neighbours, and that contemporary life has become very anonymous.
I have seen the big, anonymous shopping districts and plazas. But very close to them, I saw what seemed like a lively street and community life.
Maybe the situation is not as bad as they paint it? Or maybe I was lucky to live in a good neighbourhood? I hope it wasn’t just the second.