Of narrow lanes and concrete high-rises

A ghostly arch rises beside a construction site in the Qingshiqiao quarter of Chengdu, the city’s bird and flower market district.

If you have been following my musings on “Disappearing Chengdu,” you sense my regret about the tragic loss of the city’s architectural legacy. At the same time, my photos reveal my love of these remnants as fragile, decayed, ethereal, and very photogenic semi-ruins.

A brick entrance arch in 光大巷 Guangdaxiang “Everbright Lane”

As I continue my research and develop my photography skills, I’m also doing a bit of writing. Here is the link to my article “Buildings Up and Down,” published this month in the new Chengdu Grooves magazine.


The same issue has an article about me, written by Warren Rodwell, which you can read here:http://www.chengdugrooves.com/ViewInfo.asp?id=1172

Another brick arch divides the sections of a narrow lane in a hutong that will soon be demolished.

The other day I followed a circuit around the central city, visiting several small pockets of centuries-old houses, and logging about 6.25 kilometers on foot. Sometimes I’m very grateful for Starbucks at the end of a long walk. It’s a chance to rest my weary feet, drink some coffee, and eavesdrop on the occasional conversation in English (the prize this week goes to the man who was pontificating on the films of “Raymond Polanski.”). My camera and I recorded some images – some very good, some usable only after a lot of manipulation in Photoshop. I also have to deal with less-than-perfect scans of the negatives, and I’m still trying to find a photo store that can develop black and white film.

I like this archway because it looks like streamlined art deco, but in an old Chinese sort of way

There are a couple of terms – siheyuan and hutong – that are helpful in understanding Chengdu’s traditional urban neighborhoods, which are generally tightly-knit units intersected by narrow alleys or lanes. Traditional Chinese courtyard houses can still be seen, although some of the larger homes were later subdivided.

siheyuan: (Chinese 四合院; pinyin sìhéyuàn) – a quadrangle or 4-walled courtyard

hutong: the word means “water well” in a Mongolian dialect. It indicates that long ago people built their homes surrounding wells, with alleys separating each residence. Today this physical layout still fosters close-knit community support systems and strong relationships between neighbors.

See also: http://www.hutongtohighrise.com/gpage1.html1.html

If these walls could talk – ancient craftsmanship in the 水井坊 Shuijingfang District

Here are some internet resources I’ve found, if you want more information about what is happening to China’s traditional architecture in the face of the current building boom. The phrase “hutongs to highrises” sums up the fate of traditional urban residential buildings, at the same time providing an opportunity to document these areas in photographs and words.

Is China’s Building Boom Really the New Great Leap Forward?


On hutongs and highrises – Magical Urbanism


Hutong to Highrise


The Fortune of Four Walls


Courtyard (Siheyuan)


Kill all the Hutongs


Le vieux Chengdu n’est plus – photo by xiaomifeng on Flickr

(“The old Chengdu is no more”)


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