My Life, My City with Hua Xinmin

Hua Xinmin, Protector of Chinese Cultural Heritage, Beijing

John Rossant – Please describe your city in your own words (my city tastes / smells / feels / looks / sounds like …)

Hua Xinmin – In my childhood memory, the Beijing of the 1950s to 1970s is a garden city with the intimate feeling of human interactions. It was a city of Hutong, the narrow streets, or alleys, formed by lines of siheyuan (traditional courtyard residences). Traditional music drifts across small tree-lined lanes, where old men sit playing Chinese chess with their pet birds hanging in cages. Some of these Hutong date back to the 14th century, during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368).

JR – Did you choose your city or did your city choose you? Why?

HX – I was born in Beijing where my father was the chief planner, I left Beijing for France when I was 22, but came back 16 years later following the inner call of my homeland. No matter where I go, I always miss Beijing.

JR – Describe a personal memory that encapsulates the way you feel about your city

HX – I was born in the Wuliangdaren hutong, named after a Ming dynasty military official. My father, who studied architecture, was the chief architect of the Beijing Institute of Architectural Design following his return to Beijing in 1951. My French mother was a French-language broadcaster in China.

Our family house was my tiny but entire kingdom. The garden was filled with trees, flowers and goldfish bowls. I could enjoy the whole day despite being alone, catching dragonflies and butterflies, listening to crickets, playing house, making mud dumplings … The joys of the small yard seemed boundless.

JR – How well does your city match your profession?

HX – My profession is to protect my home city. I teach people how to use the law to protect their private property rights against misappropriation by developers and governments. I write legal reports. I also write to the officials in charge, the media, and some influential experts, calling for attention.

JR – How do you move around your city – how do you travel to work? How do you get around the city to socialize?

HX – Walking, biking and automobile, but cars are suffocating Beijing.

JR – If you were (please select one) the Mayor/ top architect/ transport guru of your city, what’s the first thing you would do to improve your city, and why?

HX – I don’t know how to answer this question in the context in which I live. The context here is that when making decisions on urban development and protection, local governments align with the interest of developers and normally ignore the voices from civil society or individuals.