Some Chinese Long for Ancient Way of Life

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BEIJING - Whole city blocks in Beijing were razed to make way for state-of-the-art Olympic venues, new hotels, subways, and modern buildings.

The new Beijing is barely recognizable to some.

But the makeover has come at a cost.

Parts of the historic city are fast disappearing leaving many residents longing for the old days.

"The song that I'm playing is about a beautiful lake in the southeast part of China so this setting matches the music that I'm rehearsing for," Han Ruili said.

Eighteen-year-old Han Ruili has found the perfect spot to practice for a recital.

"It is so peaceful here I can concentrate," Han said.

Ruili is in one of the last remnants of old Beijing called a hutong which means lane or alley.

"The city is very noisy and busy, lots of traffic and people. It is quiet here," she said.

A generation ago, some 6,000 hutongs wove through the city featuring traditional one-story, gray-tiled homes, leafy courtyards and narrow alleys criss-crossing each other like a maze.

One way to get around the Beijing hutong is on a cycle rickshaw.

"In ancient times, these hutongs used to be the home of rich officials," said Li Shimin, a tour guide.

Now, less than a thousand remain.

"Thirty years ago, the conditions of the hutongs weren't that good so people left for the big cities, they wanted to live in bigger apartments and new buildings," Li said.

In preparation for the Olympics, large areas of hutongs were demolished and replaced by apartments, shopping centers and office buildings. More than a million locals were forced to move out.

The changes in the last 30-plus years have been so dramatic, the skyscrapers, the modern buildings, that in the last few years there's been a yearning, especially among young Chinese people, for the old way of life and in fact they've been moving back into the hutongs.

"The alleys are narrow, people are so kind, and I feel like I'm walking into ancient times because the buildings are very old and very elegant," Han said.

Those like Tian Chunwei, who are fortunate to still have a home in the hutong, say they'll never give up this world of yesterday.

"I'm glad we have the Olympic buildings, the new apartments and offices, but I'd rather not deal with all that hustle and bustle of city life," Tian said.

While life here in the backstreets of this ever-changing city fades for some, for others, memories of the old Beijing inspire them to new heights.

"I hope that this aspect of Chinese traditional way of life will never change it is worth keeping at least for the next generation," Han said.

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