Beijing, Little Umbrella Kindergarten


There are three kindergartens in Huang Gang village, a poor residential area in the north of Beijing.


The Little Umbrella Kindergarten is located in a hutong and takes care of children from migrant workers who live in the village. The 300 square meter large kindergarten is, according to the teachers, positioned in the mid-range. Not as good as in the urban area, but better than average.



We talked with two teachers in this kindergarten: Mr. Gu Yunhe and Mrs. Gao Yanbo.


Little Umbrella, established 2.5 years ago, is a private kindergarten for children of parents who both work during the day. All of the parents are so called migrant workers, originating from other provinces. This means there is a high turnover as parents move between different cities for work.



The kindergarten functions more like a day care center than a school, although there is some basic education. The children learn songs, counting, Chinese language and some simple English words and sentences. The kindergarten does not keep student files.



We visited the kindergarten in February while many parents and children were still in their hometowns enjoying the yearly Spring Festival holiday with their families. At our time of visiting there were only 17 children, all in one class. The oldest kid among them is six, while the youngest is just 2. In March, when all the children have returned, the children will be divided into different classes, according to their age.



Parents don’t have to pay an extra fee to this private kindergarten for not having a Beijing residency permit (hukou). Because of the high turnover, the tuition fee is charged by month. The 200 RMB per month includes lunch, which is prepared by the teachers.



We see a little red bucket in the classroom. It’s for the young children, because they are too young to use the public toilet. Older children are accompanied by a teacher when they have to visit the public toilet (in villages like Huang Gang there are no toilets inside buildings because of a limited sewage network).



The children are wearing coats inside the classroom while an electric heating fan provides some warmth. When it gets colder, the air conditioner and coal fired stoves will be used for heating.




Beijing, A walk in the Seven Trees Village


Over the past two decades, Beijing’s urbanization has developed in a rapid pace. You can drive from the center to any direction for more than an hour and you will see new high rise buildings everywhere. Just 15 years ago the third ring road (built in 1994) was more or less the border of the developed area. Now there is a 6th ring road and development has expanded even beyond this ring (that is already up to 40 km away from the center of Beijing).


In between areas with modern buildings and infrastructure, you can still find villages in rural areas of the city. Many of them disappeared over the years, while others have grown into housing areas for migrant workers. Often the facilities are poor and so is the quality of the houses. We’ve visited many of these places and noticed that some villages are upgraded with modern public toilets (houses do not have toilets in these areas) and the renewal of basic infrastructure facilities like water supply and sewage systems. In other villages the basic facilities are clearly in decline, in some cases because the area will be demolished to make way for new development.



Seven Trees is one of the villages in a rural area between the 4th and the 5th (East) ring roads. We walked around and talked with residents.


Mr. He Mingyong is from Chongqing, He lives in a house at a narrow hutong with his wife and son. His father is currently staying with them. He came over for a 2 month stay and celebrated the Chinese New Year together with his son’s family.

The, less than 30 m2, house has two bedrooms and in the middle a small place for cooking and doing the laundry.


They fire coal for cooking and for the heating during the winter. The rent for this apartment is 450 RMB/month.


Mr. He came to Beijing 2,5 years ago. He makes a living with fine art decorations in houses under renovation. At the moment he is doing work in the house as he has not found a new assignment yet after the Spring Festival vacation. Mr. He tells that the payment for his work is almost the same in Chongqing and Beijing, but Beijing offers more opportunities and that’s why he chooses to stay in Beijing.


The son of Mr. He is nine years old and goes to a primary school in the neighborhood. Because the family does not have a Beijing hukou, they have to pay 3000 RMB more for their son to enter the school.




We enter a big house with a courtyard in the middle. Arranged on both sides of the courtyard are small one-family rooms.



One of the residents, a lady, tells us that more than ten families live inside this house. The landlord lives in another house in the same village. The lady comes from Sichuan and is, like Mr. He, making money with decorating renovated houses.  She tells that residents in the area originate from all parts of China.


Her room consists of two bunk beds and a stove, coal fired, for heating and cooking.



A worker, from Henan province, attracts our attention. He is disassembling and recycling parts of a car radiator and wearing a pair of special clogs we’ve never seen before.

He tells that he is wearing clogs from Henan province. They are called “Grass Boots”, because they used to be made of dry grass. Nowadays, people use cotton and cloth to make this kind of clogs. The surface of the clogs are prepared with Tung oil (extracted from the seed of the nut of the Tung tree). The clogs have thick soles made of wood. Though they may look awkward, the wooden soles are pretty light. The worker loves his clogs because they are warm, solid and durable. Grass Boots, he says, are very suitable for work and can last for more than 5 years. The price of these clogs in Henan is 50RMB.



We pass a group playing mahjong and then talk to two women, both from Henan. Soon they will start preparing the land around their house. They will grow vegetables like tomatoes, beans and pepper. In the summer they don’t need to go to the market to buy vegetables. The land will produce enough for their families.



A little bit further down the road we meet a guard who comes from Qinhuangdao (a city in Hebei province). In a few days he will retire and return to his hometown. He is carrying a pickaxe. He tells that some people were building illegal houses in the area and that he and his colleagues were asked to demolish them.




Beijing, Jiu Xianqiao Community



The Jiu Xianqiao residential area is different in architecture and atmosphere from any other area I know in Beijing. The architectural style is European, the buildings are just 3 stories high, there’s a lot of open space between the buildings and the area is covered with tall trees providing a comfortable shadow in the summer. Not knowing anything of its background, at a first visit this area gives you, despite its obvious state of decay, feelings of nostalgia.


We talked with a few residents and with the deputy secretary of the Jiu Xianqiao Community Service, Mrs. Gao. The photos presented here are taken in the spring and autumn of 2011.

The Jiu Xianqiao area consist of several blocks and were all designed by European architects in the 1950s. Some blocks were built by the East-Germans, other blocks by the Russians. The apartment buildings served as dormitories for workers at factories in the 718 compound (aka “Joint Factory 718”) and the 506 compound. The now famous 798 Art District used to be one of the factory areas that belonged to the 718 compound and had a focus on the production of electronic equipment.


The name “Joint Factory” refers an initial co-operation with the Soviet Union to set-up factories as part of the first five year plan of the PRC. When the Russians lost interest, the East-Germans came in to help the Chinese to set-up the factory area.


We are visiting the No.4 Jiu Xianqiao block that was built in 1956. Over the years the dormitories have been converted into apartments. According to residents, the dormitories were built to last 12 years. However, almost 60 years later, the buildings are still in use without any substantial renovation.



Five units are still sharing one bathroom together. Plaster is falling off the wall and broken windows are not being replaced. In short: the residents are angry and complain a lot about the poor living conditions. Three years ago, the government was planning to rebuild the buildings with a contribution from every household. But most residents could not afford to contribute the required funds. Thus, the plan failed eventually and nobody knows what is going to happen in the future.



The Community Service is a rather independent organization, whose aim it is to serve people. They are located just across street in a renovated, red painted, building of another block. According to Mrs. Gao, they are mainly in charge of solving problems among residents, providing help to the needy and organizing activities for retired people, such as sports games and activities for making handicrafts. She did not wish to be photographed but shows us some of the handicrafts made by senior residents and talks with enthusiasm about the activities organized for the neighborhood. Mrs. Gao, acknowledges the poor condition of the area but also does not know if and when improvements will be made.



Other post related to the Jiu Xianqiao area are: Beijing, Role models and Beijing, East german architecture




Beijing, Mrs. Huo


Today we walk around in a poor residential area, just 500 meters south of the modern Beijing business district (CBD). The area has apartment buildings and, in front of them, simple one room houses that are hidden behind a white wall, shaped in traditional Chinese style and built by the government. We meet Mrs. Huo Zhiqing who invites us into her small room.


The room is less than 10 m2 and is the home of Mrs. Huo, her husband and their youngest son. Her oldest son, Xiao He, is 14 years old and studies in her hometown in the Henan province. Once a year the whole family is together, during the Chinese New Year celebration in their hometown.


The room has no heating and no water. The rent is 400 RMB per month.


Mrs. Huo works as a cleaner in an office building nearby. Her husband makes money with collecting recyclable bottles. Together they make between 2000 and 3000 RMB per month. Except for the rental costs, they pay 600 RMB per month for the kindergarten of their youngest son and they send another 600 RMB to their oldest son every month. They find it hard to save money, especially because of the increasing prices in Beijing. Mrs. Huo says that it is sad that both her parents and parents in law do not live anymore while noting at the same time that they do not need to send them money anymore.


We ask if the poster of the horse, outside her room has any special meaning. However, the only reason that Mrs. Huo put the poster up is to keep the wind out of the room. In the winter it is very cold in the room (the average temperature in the winter is around minus 10 at night). There is no central heating system and it is not allowed to burn coal for heating in the room.


Still, Mrs. Huo says, the living in Beijing is much better than in her hometown. The landscape may be beautiful, but there is not much arable land. Most villagers go to big cities, like Beijing, to make a living.




Beijing’s disappearing hutong areas



They are slowly disappearing, but you will still find them everywhere in Beijing: hutong, or nong tang, areas built one or two decades ago.

The buildings, usually just one story high, are often poorly constructed and lack private sanitary facilities. Like in the old hutongs in the center of Beijing, residents share public restroom facilities and for a shower one has to go to a bathhouse.  A labyrinth of small alleys connects the houses on the inside of the hutong area and on the outside you will find small shops and restaurants providing the daily necessities.


Often these areas are surrounded by modern high rise commercial or residential buildings. On the one hand this provides a sharp contrast between the living conditions of the rich and the poor, on the other hand it characterizes the heterogeneous environment of the city where rich and poor are not (yet) segregated by districts. It makes that live on the streets in most parts of the city is (still) very lively with street vendors, small restaurants and people chatting or playing cards and Chinese chess on the street.


It is this heterogeneous environment that is often full of surprises. A while ago I was invited for a dinner by a Chinese friend living in such a poor hutong area.  It had rained that day and before I reached the entrance of the house, my shoes were completely covered with mud. Inside, a sparsely lit small room with a simple folding table, served as a dining room. Our host had invited a friend and we had a long talk over a good dinner with old traditional Beijing dishes and a lot of “baijiu” (a strong alchohol). At the end of the evening I exchanged business cards with the friend of our host. Back home I checked his name card and I found out that the friend was actually a very influential and rich person, being the second in command executive manager of one of China’s largest state-enterprises.


Eventually all of these poor hutong areas will disappear and make way for new development projects (except for the several hundred years old hutong areas that are gradually being restored as new homes for the rich). Nostalgic feelings make that many people regret that these areas disappear, but having talked with many of their residents, most people living there do look forward to their new houses with modern facilities.


Life in new high rise residential areas brings the inevitable loss of community sense compared to the life in the hutong areas.  A loss for street photographers and everybody else who enjoys lively street scenes. For the residents themselves however, this does not outweigh the benefits of the comfort provided by their new homes. The kind of home this street photographer returns to after a street photo shoot …