n a warm afternoon in Beijing, Xu Qinmin descends to the courtyard of his apartment building to bask in the sunlight. It’s a daily routine for the 92-year-old who, assisted by a helper, walks unsteadily through a dark hallway, carefully avoiding piles of litter and dog feces scattered all around.
Xu is one of the oldest residents of the nine-story Anhua Building, where he’s lived for half a century. The massive complex sprawls over 23,000 square meters in Dongcheng District. Built in 1960, the Anhua, along with the Fusuijing Building and Beiguanting Building, was constructed as a flagship urban commune in Beijing. Equipped with a shared cafeteria, TV room, child-care center, and common entertainment areas as well as elevators, the buildings had long been seen as a dream dwelling reflecting the ultimate communist lifestyle.
Over half a century of China’s rapid economic transition, the buildings have been gradually left behind. Today the hallways are dark, stairs broken, walls smeared with dirt and graffiti, public kitchens dirtied with grease and elevators mostly defunct. The only objects with an air of modern life are some shared bicycles leaning against the wall.
At the age of 30, Xu swapped a 40-square-meter bungalow in Gongzhufen, northwest Beijing, for an 8.7-square-meter apartment in Anhua Building and moved in with his wife and newborn son. It was a good deal for him: the building not only served as the embodiment of Communism, but more importantly offered convenience and novel services, such as elevators.
Xu lives on the third floor around the corner of the east wing. He made a bed for three with planks he exchanged for a coupon in a department store in the 1960s. When his family outgrew the bed as his son grew up, they placed chairs next to it to sleep on.
Xu, who managed a mechanical equipment factory, was an Army officer in the Sino-Japanese War, China’s Civil War, and the Korean War. Keen on discussing politics and global issues, he took seriously the “communist ideals” of the building.
“The whole thing was to explore experience through practice, and then draw experience to further guide future practice,” he told NewsChina.
Shi Tiesheng, a celebrated Beijing-born writer, was just a child in 1959 when the Fusuijing Building was under construction. In his essay, “The Building with Nine Floors,” Shi recounts how his teacher in primary school described the building as a communist utopia.
“The building is equipped with gas, heating and elevators; residents don’t have to cook at all – they can go to the canteen and eat whatever they want; there will be a club where people can play board games or do sports, a movie room where they can watch movies any time, and a library, public bathroom, a medical center and a grocery store… The building is like society itself, a miniature version of an ideal society, where people live like a big family. It will basically be communism,” Shi wrote, quoting his teacher.
Keen imaginations spread hyperbolic rumors. It was widely believed that the construction materials of these buildings were those left over from the construction of the Great Hall of the People, China’s parliament building in Tiananmen Square. This is refuted by Jin Cheng, one of the architects of the Anhua Building, who told NewsChina, “The materials used were nothing special, not to mention that ordinary materials were in short supply at that time.”
The privilege of being a resident or the commune was also the subject of gossip. “Only those of position and influence could live there,” Jin said. The rent of five or six yuan per month was unaffordable to most people at the time. Initial residents included mid-ranking officials in the municipal health bureau and educational bureau as well as the land and housing office, and celebrity artists from the Peking Opera.
Resident Li Xiumei, whose husband was an actor in China’s national acrobatic troupe, moved into her dream apartment in 1962. Two years later she volunteered to be director of the neighborhood committee, which saw her deal with all sorts of issues in the community.
Li told NewsChina about her wide range of responsibilities – mostly trivial things such as taking care of neighbors’ children who left their keys at home and had nowhere to go. “Except for cooking, I managed everything,” she said.
“People were pretty close at that time. They were kind and trusted one another.”In the eyes of the children, the Anhua was an adventure land, tall and bright. Zhao Xixiang was only five years old when he moved into the Anhua in 1962. Every day after school, Zhao was swamped by classmates who begged him to take them to the building to play.
Back then, just taking the elevator was an exhilarating adventure. The children screamed with amazement as they were scooped up from the first floor and delivered to the eighth by this curious machine. Such pleasure was rationed by a guard who sat next to the elevator, so the kids could only manage two or so rides each.
For the first few years, the entire ninth floor was an activity area where residents could sing, dance, play badminton and board games. There Zhao and his pals would play the Chinese board game “Go,” or slide down the banister and climb out the window to the terrace to play.
On August 29, 1958, the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee met in the coastal resort town of Beidaihe and adopted a resolution on building rural people’s communes, declaring, “It will not take too long to realize communism in China. We must actively employ this form of people’s commune to feel for a path to transition to communism.”
In just a few months, the people’s commune model spread to all rural areas and began to enter China’s cities. The movement was approved by the 6th Plenary Session of the 8th CPC Central Committee in December 1958, which held that “urban people’s communes are tools for transforming old cities and building new ones.”
The CPC Central Committee called on the people to mobilize and experiment with different kinds of urban communes.
In Beijing Record, a historical account of the politicization of urban planning and redevelopment in the capital by Chinese investigative journalist Wang Jun, “This resulted in an upsurge of urban people’s communes [around China]. By the end of July 1960, 190 large and medium-sized cities had set up 1,064 people’s communes, with a combined membership of 55 million people, 77 percent of these cities.”
As the lead designers of the Anhua Building, Jin Cheng and his colleagues at the Municipal Planning and Design Institute of Beijing spent day and night discussing the finer points of the building.
What does a communist urban commune look like? The first idea that occurred to them was to build a shared cafeteria providing free food – after all, free meals without rations were the dreams of many. As planned, there would be no private kitchens in the building.
People had to go to the collective canteen to dine. “If there’s no private kitchen in the flat, are we not just making single dorm rooms?” queried then-chairman of the Municipal Planning and Design Institute of Beijing, Shen Bo. Jin says no one responded.
“Today it’s common sense that [an apartment without a private kitchen] is not desirable at all. But at that time, no one took the issue seriously. The situation was: if you opposed the design, you had to put forward a solution. Otherwise everything was to go ahead as planned,” Jin Cheng, who is now 92, told NewsChina.
But a severe food shortage made the idealistic promise of free meals impossible to keep when a three-year famine rocked the nation, a consequence of natural calamities and the Great Leap Forward (1958-61). A shared cafeteria in the Fusuijing Building operated for only a few days, while the situation in the Anhua was much worse – its cafeteria never opened.
Residents resorted to placing small coal-fired stoves outside their doors. “[When people cooked], the hallways were thick with black smog to the extent one had to bend down in order to pass,” Xu recalled. The walls of the new building were blackened by soot within three years.
In 1969, three flats on every floor of the Anhua were converted into public kitchens – two in each wing and one in the main building. Some were shared among as many as 14 households.
“The public kitchen made your daily family menu public knowledge,” said Xu. “Also, it was a huge inconvenience to carry dishes back and forth to your apartment.”
Most disturbing of all was that no one cleaned the public kitchens. Over decades, Xu said, the grease on the walls transformed into clusters of black wart-like knots.
The tap water in the public kitchens was free of charge at first. But soon, water wastage became so serious that every family was equipped with one faucet in the kitchen for their own use. This brought a new annoyance: the phenomenon of water theft. Some residents were driven to install locks on their own faucets.
The reality of collective living did not match the ideal. Neighborhood relations became increasingly strained during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). People grew distrustful of one another as everyone was encouraged to criticize their neighbors.
Xu himself was criticized and humiliated during the Cultural Revolution. He was forced to march through the streets with a large board on his neck reading “Capitalist Roader.”
As China moved towards the privatization of housing in the 1990s, people drifted away from collective living. Only a few residents remain in the commune – mostly with the hope that the government will tear down the building and pay them a large sum in compensation.
In 2001, the Beiguanting Building was demolished. In 2003 the Fusuijing Building was condemned due to fire safety fears.
The Fusuijing Building was once home to 358 households. Persuaded by the government, 90 percent of residents moved out with compensation. Now only 30 households remain in the 25,000 square-meter building, four or five per floor. Their neighbors are bricks and soot.
Wide-eyed tourists are drawn to the remaining two buildings – reporters, documentary makers, film crews – and young urban adventurers who head there at midnight hunting for ghosts.
Fu Ruzhen, a resident of the Fusuijian Building, told NewsChina that she sometimes sees
mischievous kids running around at nighttime with sticks. “There’s a real ghost in there. Just go away!” She points to an empty room and shouts at the children.
The Anhua too is in decline. The dim hallways are packed with old objects and trash. The nursing room has been converted into a warehouse, and the top-floor public space was taken over by a vocational school and then a printing firm.
Several years ago, Anhua resident Xu Qinmin warned his new neighbors about the deteriorating sanitation and rental issues.
The Anhua is a public rental estate where tenants only have to pay 50 yuan (US$ 7.81) per month. But in recent years, many residents subleased the flats to migrant workers at the price of 3,000 yuan (US$468) a month. Xu repeatedly denounces this as an act of profiteering from public property.
He has grown taciturn in recent years. None of his old neighbors live here anymore. His obstinacy induces grumbles and misunderstandings from new tenants.
Most of the new settlers, who moved in after the year 2000, expect the building to be torn down and await compensation. But Xu, who has lived here for nearly 60 years, hopes the community will outlive him.
He lives a lonely life in a cramped room. His wife died of a brain hemorrhage nine years ago and his children work outside Beijing. Old photos hang on the white walls, which were repainted by his wife just before her death. He keeps things that belonged to his wife where she left them, with longing and nostalgia.
Besides the window sits a pot of vigorous ivy, which has grown for over a decade, leaves trailing the cracks along the walls and half of the table. Another nearby plant is withered and almost dead, but Xu has no intention of throwing it away. “It’s just like me,” he said, smiling. “When I die, it might follow.