The residential area is the size of 20 football pitches and looks like Lego blocks painted in seven colours. As a residential complex it retains the name it was given as a pandemic facility – the Colourful Community.
“This used to be a makeshift Covid hospital, but it was left unused after the pandemic,” said an employee of the state-owned housing company that manages the Colourful Community.
The sudden transformation of the site into low-rent housing by the local government in September has sparked much debate on Chinese social media, with some praising it as a smart move. Others said it revived traumatic memories of the strict zero-Covid policy that affected livelihoods and movement for so many Chinese.
“I will never set foot in a makeshift hospital again until the day I die,” said one Beijing resident who had to undergo mandatory quarantine several times.
Under China’s zero-Covid policy, a large number of temporary hospitals were set up to achieve Beijing’s goal of accommodating all Covid-19 patients, regardless of how severe their symptoms were.
Some facilities were converted from stadiums or convention centres; others were makeshift hospitals mostly made of containers and built quickly after the spring of 2022 in response to the rapid spread of the Omicron strain.
Late last year, mandatory quarantine requirements were lifted as the Chinese government relaxed most of its Covid-19 controls, including mass PCR testing and the health code system. The makeshift hospitals across the country, including the Colourful Community in Beijing, were then left empty.
But for many living on the mainland, their memories of severe pandemic measures remain.
Discussion around the fate of makeshift hospitals also rouses memories and concern among the public.
In September, online media outlet Jiemian said dealing with these temporary buildings was a “difficult problem to solve” for local governments.
The Guangzhou-based Southern Weekly reported in August that hundreds of makeshift hospitals were being transformed, with some becoming official medical facilities and others being dismantled. But whatever might happen to the container-like hospitals, it would cost the government money, Southern Weekly said.
Earlier, mainland media reported that a makeshift hospital in Jinan, in the eastern province of Shandong, was converted into rental flats but only some of the pandemic-era medical structures have been converted into flats.
Demands of the pandemic meant these emergency facilities were constructed rapidly. The state-owned construction company responsible for building the Colourful Community said in a WeChat article it built the original pandemic hospital in just 20 days in July 2022.
That summer, despite strict controls in Beijing to reduce the movement of people and prevent the virus from spreading in the heart of China’s political capital, cases continued to emerge.
By October, the Colourful Community saw a spike in its population as the number of infections in Beijing rose. According to publicity material cited by mainland media, close to 40,000 people stayed there in 2022.
Residents included Covid-19-infected patients transported from all corners of Beijing, as well as their close contacts, and sometimes even the close contacts of their close contacts. But a year later, the rooms created for compulsory quarantine had become low-rent flats.
Despite filling an accommodation need, there are signs in the Colourful Community that the authorities are carefully managing the tenants here.
“Residents from Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, as well as foreign citizens, are not allowed to live here,” reads a notice posted in the community by the management on the public housing estate that alludes to China’s complicated household registration system.
Bruce in Beijing said his neighbours in the Colourful Community included takeaway workers, ride-share drivers, construction workers and university students looking for work.
“As long as you don’t mind that it used to be a place of medical quarantine, it’s a nice place to live,” Bruce said.
The Colourful Community is less than 10km (6.2 miles) from the busy Beijing Capital International Airport, but 30km from Tiananmen Square in the city centre and 8km from the nearest subway station.
At the end of September many young people in Beijing, including Bruce who had just arrived to look for a job, noticed an advertisement on the social media accounts of some rental companies.
“1,200 yuan [US$170] per month, private bathroom, pets allowed,” one notice said.
Even on the outskirts of Beijing, 1,200 yuan a month is a relatively low price. In Beijing’s business and technology districts, people often pay three times or more to rent a bedroom, according to popular rental website Lianjia.
A report in China Newsweek, a Beijing-based magazine, said in mid-November that about 400 of the 520 available flats had been rented, however the once-busy PCR testing lab was removed by crane last month.
Reports by several Chinese media outlets said most residents they interviewed were satisfied with the Colourful Community because they saw the affordable flats as a temporary place to stay.
But on social media a year ago, many users posted different stories.
One Weibo user who was housed there during the pandemic said in November last year: “When the air conditioner works, the whole building shakes.
Another said then: “I haven’t finished my quarantine in the Colourful Community, but I don’t want to go back for the rest of my life.”
A Weibo commenter said in April: “To this day my heart still stops a beat when I think about my experience of quarantine in the Colourful Community.”