China's Disappearing Ancient Homes

Hutong house.
Hutongs are part and parcel of ancient Beijing. They are where young and old cross paths. Sales are still door-to-door and a neighbor lady acts as security guard.

Some hutongs are made up of courtyard houses where owners have recaptured the style and taste of long-ago dynasties. The hutongs are part of an imperial city designed by emperors — and by superstition.

"The design is about how people balance the relationship between the universe, human beings and the Earth," Hua Xinmin, who works to preserve the hutongs, told CBS News correspondent Barry Peterson.

In the 1400s, Ming Emperor Yong Le designed his capital as a single work of art, with concentric neighborhoods flowing outward from the palace.

The superstition of the time was that spirits could not fly very high — no higher than the wall that once surrounded the city. So in what was perhaps the world's first design decree, structures were limited to one story so the spirits could roam freely.

Today modern China rears its head. Once there were more than 3,000 hutongs and 100,000 courtyard houses. Half are already gone, and every day the bulldozers make way for progress by removing more. Thousands of residents have moved to high rises.

Many welcome a better life. Among the hutongs there is often no running water, and many homes may share one communal toilet. But others want their hutong home and neighborhood. And when destroyed, the life that once flourished now exists only in fading pictures.

"This is our identity," Hua said. "For the next generation, losing this is a very serious problem."

A few from that next generation gather on Sundays to preserve the old with all they have: their cameras. They know this is a race against time, that the speed of tearing down the hutongs is accelerating as Beijing builds a modern face for the 2008 Olympics.

"Too many people now live and work in Western style these days," says organizer Zhang Wei. "We want to encourage people to inherit the essence of our tradition."

"Beijing is composed of hutong," Hua said. "If all this is demolished, then Beijing is gone."