It is a familiar tale of inner-city gentrification – area is earmarked for redevelopment, ordinary folk are sidelined, demolition follows. Not King’s Cross or Elephant and Castle but Dashalar, a centuries-old neighbourhood in the centre of Beijing where alley-way gift stores vie for attention with the likes of Zara, Louis Vuitton and H&M in one of the Chinese capital’s latest tourist destinations – ‘Old Beijing’.
As the district’s radical makeover accelerated in the early 2000s in tandem with the removal of the original population, it caught the attention of London academic Harriet Evans, professor emeritus of Chinese cultural studies at the University of Westminster and author of a number of books on the country.
“Dashalar was a desperately poor neighbourhood only a few minutes’ walk away from the incredible wealth, splendour and power symbolised by Tiananmen Square. The contrast was startling,” she recalls.
“So many of my students took my course because they thought they could rock up in China and make a lot of money, which many of them did. They had no idea about the impact of the spectacular changes taking place in Beijing on people’s lives.”
In response, she launched a research study in 2005 that saw her regularly visiting Dashalar, an area characterised by one-storey buildings, winding lanes and cluttered courtyards that was home to a close-knit community of some 50,000 souls. The result is Beijing From Below, which tracks Dashalar’s Disneyfication against the backdrop of China’s recent past as it lurched from Mao’s revolution to the embrace of global capitalism.
At its heart are the oral histories of several families whose lives have barely altered over the decades as they lead a hand-to-mouth existence in crowded accommodation that may boast a TV but not hot water or proper sanitation. Attempts to improve the standard of living under Mao came to little, while the post-Mao years have witnessed a widening wealth gap, hastened by China’s arrival on to the world stage with the 2008 Olympics.
“When change finally did arrive, it was shocking in its pace and intensity,” Harriet tells me over the phone from her home in Highgate. “It occurred not gradually through progressive improvements but drastically and suddenly.”
She adds in earnest: “It is absolutely true that China’s engagement with capitalism has lifted millions out of poverty, and we are accustomed to seeing images of Beijing and Shanghai as ultra metropolises full of high rises and architectural icons. The book tells a radically different story, one that hasn’t been told before, about the lives of the urban poor whom nobody has paid any attention to.”
Harriet first visited Beijing in 1975, having learned Chinese via studies at SOAS and the University of British Columbia. “I spent two years in China and I learned to speak Chinese properly. However, I was a foreign student and not allowed into people’s homes or to have friendships with Chinese nationals.”
She remembers Beijing fondly as a “huge sprawling village with no cars, no high rises and no neon lights. Everything was totally different”.
Her love affair with China began as a schoolgirl in Oxford: “At the time everyone was despairing of the Soviet Union and Mao’s revolution seemed to hold out the promise of radical transformation. I was also deeply interested in Chinese philosophy.”
Shortly after she arrived in the country, Mao died and the People’s Republic began to chart a different course. “Mao was a great revolutionary leader who had profoundly important ideas about revolutionary transformation but he got many things wrong,” she says.
Harriet managed to befriend her Dashalar interlocutors with the help of a local photographer busily documenting the district in its final death throes. “First of all I began hanging out with them. I was a single mum with two little kids at home and I would just turn up during my visits to China and simply observe their comings and goings.”
Initially, people were slightly amused by this foreigner’s presence in their lives but, having been ignored and neglected for so many years, they came to welcome the opportunity to share their memories with her: “They were keen for someone to tell the world their story and they were also extremely proud of the way they managed to survive their everyday hardships.”
Although couched in the language of a serious ethnographic study, the six lives on which the book is based shine through as fascinating narratives in their own right. Who can forget community lynchpin ‘Old Mrs Gao’, who lived through Japanese occupation, war, famine, revolution and the market reform era but manages to keep her family intact, finally ruling the roost from her bed?
Work finishing the book was interrupted in 2015 when Harriet suffered a near fatal illness during one of her visits to China. By the time she completed it, Dashalar had joined the heritage industry as Old Beijing minus the old Beijingers. “Today the area has been completely demolished and gentrified and few of those I knew during my research now remain,” laments Harriet.
She is ever grateful to them for allowing her into their lives, describing it as an immense privilege. “Their generosity gave me unanticipated and wonderful opportunities to reflect on how people strive to live decent, considerate and ethical lives in everyday conditions of scarcity, social discrimination and extreme hardship,” she says.
Beijing from Below: Stories of Marginal Lives in the Capital’s Centre by Harriet Evans is published by Duke University Press, £22
This article was first published in The Review, September 17 2020