Beijing Stories and Tips

Wandering the hutongs of Beijing

Courtyard house Photo, Beijing, China

Before leaving for Beijing, a friend warned me not to miss the hutongs of Beijing. In case you are wondering, the hutongs are ancient houses built around narrow and winding lanes that were the predominant features of old Beijing. According to the guidebooks I consulted, the hutongs have been yielding in the past number of years to large apartment buildings. Recently, preparation for the Olympics in 2008 contributed further to the leveling of the hutongs.

So we made sure to include hutongs in our wonderings. Although, from Jingshan Park, we saw a large hutong area near the Lama Temple, our limited time in Beijing did not allow us to go there. Instead, we wondered in the hutongs next to Beihai Park. Despite the fact that all of the houses are very old and that many are decrepit, they must have been so charming once upon a time. They have these cute doors that are very narrow and short, kind of squatty. Because the narrow alleyways can’t accommodate automobiles, the dominant mode of transportation in and out of these areas is the bicycle, and once in the while, we can spot a pedi-cab driver paddling tourists around. Wandering the hutongs, we were thus transported in time to what must have been Beijing in the early 1900s. It was heaven to escape from the noise and pollution outside. In our wonderings, we saw traditional courtyard houses—four single-story buildings arranged around a courtyard with one shared door to the outside.

I especially remembered one such structure. I had noticed, while walking in the narrow alleyway, that there was a tiny blackboard with a picture of a house, with flowers and butterflies, and an arrow pointing to the left. Turning left, we saw, about 200 feet down, an open door. Peeking through, we saw a traditional courtyard and a sign "WC." Taking the existence of a public toilet to indicate that these traditional courtyard houses are probably not private, we knocked and entered. The first sight that greeted us was lots of persimmons on the window panes, more flowers that someone had painted, and clothing hung out to dry in the sunlight.

It turned out that the blackboard sign was pointing to this group of houses. It is a center for disabled youth in the neighborhood. A student in his 20s—he told us he studied at the University of Beijing—told us, in fluent English, that disabled youths from the neighborhood are all invited to spend time singing, reading, playing sports, and engaging in other activities at this center until someone from their family come to get them. The youths there must have been surprised to receive visitors who looked Chinese but spoke a strange language. After saying hi to these young people and thanking them for letting us visit, we left the courtyard.

Having heard a number of radio programs on NPR lamenting the rapid loss of the hutongs to Beijing’s unbridled passion for big and ugly buildings, I had expected the Chinese who live there and who run the risk of losing their home to also bemoan the impending loss of their homes. During my wanderings in the hutongs, I heard at least one opinion to the contrary.

The voice we heard was from a gentleman in his 60s. When we first saw him, he was taking an evening walk in the hutong, wearing shirt and pants and a Mao cap. He lived in the hutongs adjacent to Beihai Park, but not quite in the back lakes area. Seeing us wondering around and gazing at every hutong while grabbing onto our notebook, I wondered whether he mistook us for inspectors from the government. He approached us and told us emphatically that the hutongs must be torn down. I then attempted to engage him in conversation with my broken Chinese. From what I managed to understand, he had lived in these hutongs all his life, but that his dwelling was more than 100 years old, that it had never had work done, and that frankly, unless the government proposed to do something about the hutongs, they will all fall down and injure people, and well, become a menace. His personal opinion is that they should all be torn down and that modern buildings should be constructed. He said that many people are of his opinion. Not being fluent in Chinese, I was not able to confirm his statement with others in the vicinity. However, thinking back, I guess I should not be too surprised. Many Chinese, at heart, are very practical. Having no doubt lived a difficult life with no modern amenities, I am sure he looks forward to a day where running water, continuous electricity, and uninterrupted heat in the winter and air-conditioning in the summer are something that he could take for granted. Isn’t this the ultimate battle in many corners of the world between development and preservation?

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