The familiar Chinese woman's dress, or cheongsam, dates only to the 1920s when it was made fashionable by socialites in Shanghai. Shanghai tailors fleeing the 1949 Communist Revolution brought the style to Hong Kong, from where it has been reintroduced.
Beijing – Long Read

Can Beijing’s hutongs survive another 800 years of progress?

Photo by Jon Arnold

Beijing – Long Read Can Beijing’s hutongs survive another 800 years of progress?

Hello Beijing, where the ancient alleyways that were once the heart of the city’s communal way of life are fast disappearing as developers move in at a frenetic pace. Some of these hutongs date back as far as the 13th-century Yuan Dynasty but can – and should – they survive another 800 years of progress for China's capital?

Gareth Clark
Gareth Clark

Clouds of smoke billow above a small table in a narrow alley. Around it teeter a trio of men on tiny wooden stools, encircled by a vocal gang of onlookers. It is hot and their shirts are rolled up proudly to reveal bulbous bellies. Bets are exchanged and cards are snapped down on the tabletop with whip-crack venom, the scent of freshly charred chuan’r and old tobacco hanging in the night air. Then a dull roar sounds and the winner grins, cigarette dangling limply from one side of his mouth as I pass by, unobserved, walking the same stretch of alley but seemingly in a different world.

This was my introduction to Beijing’s hutongs – the alleyways that glue together the capital’s 800-year-old network of residential courtyards. It was back in 2010 and I had just moved to the city. I was wilting my way down the narrow, twisting arteries off Dongzhimen Beixiaojie in search of food one night, side-stepping gambling locals, playful children and rattling bicycle trailers laden with recyclables. Eventually I stumbled across a Chinese-style barbecue joint on Santiao Hutong and duly bagged a table outside. Before long, some roasted mutton arrived, suspended on a mini spit above glowing coals. Sweating from the heat of the night and the BBQ, I greedily tore off flecks of meat and watched as alley life slowly unfolded around me, steadfastly resolving never to rush again. It was love at first sight.

Beijing is a city obsessed with the modern and the new but the simplest pleasures here are still to be found wandering its hutongs – the most enduring symbol of the “old city”. For those yet to discover them, these are the narrow, often scruffy alleys – no wider than nine horse steps (around 5.5 meters) – which are formed by rows of traditional walled courtyard housing known as siheyuan. They serve as handy shortcuts and hide some great local restaurants, but they also double as backyards for the generations of Beijingren who continue to live there, offering anyone who strolls down them a glimpse of an altogether different pace of city life.

Crammed with more than 700 opium dens and 300 brothels

However, the hutongs were not a Chinese invention. A few decades after the razing of Beijing by Chingis Khan’s Mongol hordes in 1215, his grandson, Khubilai, returned to the city (then known as Dadu). Using it as his base, Khubilai Khan went on to found the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) and began by rebuilding his capital in grids of narrow, criss-crossing alleys dotted with wells. In fact, the word hutong is derived from the Mongolian hottog, meaning “water well”. By the time of the Qing dynasty (1644-1912), the era from which many of the oldest hutongs still standing date, there were a recorded 2,000 such alleys within Beijing’s walls, snaking outwards from the Forbidden City.

Etched into these lanes is the history of Beijing, say Tony Chen, a native Beijinger and guide. For him, the lure of the hutongs is the stories they tell. Take, for example, Qianshi Hutong (Money Market Alley), nestled deep in the Dashilan area, south of Tiananmen. At just 40cm, it is officially the narrowest hutong in the city and scarcely wider than a man’s shoulders. Midway down it, this is a detail that becomes uncomfortably apparent as I shuffle along it. “This is not poor planning but rather a stroke of genius,” says Chen. “Qianshi was basically the banking capital of the Qing dynasty and used to be home to 26 mints; its narrowness simply meant that it was easier to put ‘the squeeze’ on any robbers trying for a quick getaway.”

Other streets turn out to have equally unexpected pasts. Nearby, the unassuming area known as Bada Hutong (which translates as “Eight Great Streets”) was home to the city’s red-light district from the time of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) until the Communists took over in 1949. Discreetly outside the city gates, in its heyday it crammed more than 700 opium dens and 300 brothels into its overflowing lanes. It was also home to legendary madam Sai Jinhua, credited with helping keep the peace in the area during the Boxer Rebellion, owing to her “influence” over the allied supreme commander. Alas, today, much of it has been demolished and rebuilt, its infamous past erased.

You had hutongs named after granaries

Many of the old commercial hutongs were geared around a single profession, with some rather literal nomenclature. “The name of the hutong often describes the whole life of the area,” says local historian and co-founder of Beijing Postcards, Lars Ulrik Thom. “Around Dashilan in particular you had a number of these. There was one street named ‘skewed tobacco pouch street’ because it was twisted and housed shops making tobacco pouches. You had hutongs named after granaries and the big storage houses where the grain is stored; you even had newspaper hutongs.”

It might seem chaotic now, but this arrangement once brought order to the city. “Today, we have a rather romantic notion of hutong life, but originally they were created to instill a kind of control. You can feel it when you walk down them,” says Ulrik Thom, who has been researching the city’s old nightwatch. Under the rule of the Qing dynasty, the hutong’s gated communities not only provided security at night, but helped the watch maintain curfew. One legacy of this system can still be seen today, he says: “When the watch was disbanded in the 1920s, its men were laid off and began cultivating many of the hobbies we now romanticize as images of ‘old Beijing’, such as flying kites and keeping grasshoppers.”

The hutongs are a part of the city that is in danger of vanishing. While more than 40 protected historical areas have been created over the past 15 years, these centuries-old courtyards and alleyways are often left to the mercy of the developers. The numbers are pretty damning: In 1949, when what was then Peking fell to Mao Zedong’s Communist revolutionaries, the city had upwards of 3,200 hutongs; today, it is closer to 1,200.

It is a process that has been ongoing for decades. Following the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 (the same year the Tangshan Earthquake devastated 100,000 buildings in the capital), his successor, Deng Xiaopeng, instigated a series of economic reforms that continued long into the 1980s and ‘90s. This formed the basis for China’s ongoing economic and real estate boom. It also paved the way for the introduction of the weigai system, which gave city developers carte blanche to relocate residents from “dilapidated” housing. Tellingly, these decades accounted for the largest obliteration of hutongs in Beijing’s history, with a recorded two-thirds either destroyed or heavily damaged.

It has all been about making money

“During the first 30 years of ‘New China’, the only thing that mattered was political struggle; during the second 30 years, it has all been about making money,” says He Shuzhong, founder of the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Centre (CHP), an organization battling to preserve the city’s relics. “The biggest threats to the hutongs are avarice, corruption and the fatuous. There are laws both on the local and national level to protect the old city, but very often the local government and the developers are part of the same consortium. They want these ancient sites and buildings to be shiny and new because they think that ‘world city’ means developed city.”

Many of the hutongs have been destroyed to make way for residential blocks or glamorous malls, others have suffered a more bizarre fate: being reborn as “fake hutongs”. In 2006, city developers risked outrage by tearing down the densely populated and historic neighborhood of Qianmen, just south of Tiananmen Square, only to rebuild it as a tourist-friendly “ancient-style” shopping street with a GAP, McDonalds and H&M, just in time for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. No local storeowners remained, and certainly no residents.

The issue is not so simple, though. Tony Chen’s family used to live in the hutongs and lanes near Tiananmen. “For me, I feel conflicted,” he says. “You look at the courtyards in and around Houhai [off Gulou] and it is possible for one family to live comfortably in them. But where I grew up, you had very limited privacy, and for a long time we didn’t have our own running water. Yes, you had this community with neighbours helping each other out, and it is sad that’s disappearing. But the economy has also changed; now there is no reason to ask your neighbour for something you can acquire yourself. I see the need for the old hutongs to be preserved. I care about their history. But I also see why some want to take the developer’s money and leave.”

West of the Forbidden City, you see both sides of the coin. As I walk down the narrow lanes around Dongzhimen, the fading light lends the scuffed, tree-lined alleyways a nostalgic glow. A young, well-dressed Chinese couple walk hand in hand, their shadows cast against the old, grey walls. I follow them, wandering past a smattering of ramshackle restaurants and snack stalls with various charred limbs and feet on display. Behind one serving hatch, a tower of circular, bamboo steaming trays are piled high, with delicious dumplings and filled buns inside. For a few kuai, a guy hands me a plastic bag full of the latter and I notice the long fingernails on his left hand: a proudly cultivated symbol that he does no manual labour. I walk on and soon hit the main street.

That guy who walks his pet goose

Just a block from Dongzhimen is Gulou Dong Dajie, a richly historic area that is home to some of the city’s most popular tourist hutongs, monuments such as the Drum and Bell Towers and a growing nightlife. Building work might ring out into the dark but, as the sun sets over the nearby bar-packed alleys off the main drag – where vintage stores and fashion boutiques mingle with guitar shops, backpacker joints and hawker stalls – it is business as usual. Young, mohican-sporting Chinese rockers tumble past me, shoehorned into skinny jeans and tugging on packs of cigarettes, while the tourists are drawn toward the 700-year-old Nanluoguxiang (aka NLGX) – the default guidebook hutong for visitors.

Less than a decade ago, it was very different. When British entrepreneur Dominic Hill Wood moved to Nanlouguxiang with his family in 2003, it was a sedate residential area with few businesses. “We could set up our dinner table up in the middle of the alley and eat outside; that’s how quiet it was,” he tells me. A couple of years later, he opened his now famous Plastered 8 T-shirts store and began holding culture festivals with a few other entrepreneurs to attract passersby. “Back then, we had about 20,000 visitors come to our festival. Then more and more creative stores started to open up. What happened next happens everywhere: an artistic area grows organically and people love it, then it becomes a destination. Foot traffic increases, rents go up, residents move out, and so do the original shop owners.”

By the time of the Olympics in 2008, tourist trinket stalls had flooded Nanluoguxiang, followed by the arrival of dodgy street-food stands. This is how fast things change. Since then, it has taken off as a tourist destination, with 200,000 Chinese and foreign visitors a day. Plastered 8 remains, and there is still that guy who walks his pet goose up and down the alley every day, but a lot of the original creative stores and residents have been pushed out to quieter neighboring hutongs, making venturing off the main tourist haunts a must.

In the evening, those in the know shun NLGX for the nearby Beiluoguxiang, Fangjia, Ju’er or Baochao hutongs, where the converted courtyard bars, boutiques and restaurants are that bit newer, that bit harder to find, that bit less played out, and where the mix of old and new is not quite so jarring. The arrival in recent years of hidden live music venues, fixie bike shops, international restaurants, fashion boutiques and cool bars has fuelled a fascinating boho boom in the downtown hutongs that is definitely worth exploring. It has even given rise to that most modern of phenomena: the “hutong hipster”.

Beijing is a place that lingers on the past

Sipping a beer in Jianghu Bar, one of the area’s older courtyard music dens, I meet up with local music writer Wang Ge. “I guess Gulou’s bohemian vibe was always there, right from the arrival of the China Central Academy of Drama in the 1950s,” he says over the gurgle of the Mongolian throat-singers. “Beijing is a place that lingers on the past, and the romanticism of hutong life is the perfect environment for artists. You had all these young film students, musicians, actors and artsy types who needed an environment to suit their lifestyle and a cheap place to showcase their work – plus many of the early bands were native Beijingers and grew up in and around the hutongs – so along came the bars, the live music and the boutiques.”

Beijing is undeniably changing. The capital’s population is now estimated at a mighty 22 million, growing by 70 per cent over the past 60 years alone. And with the greatest density of residents to be found in the hutong-riddled districts of Xicheng and Dongcheng, something has got to give. Sadly, in many cases it will be the city’s old way of life, pushed out to make room for the good and the bad alike. Perhaps it is fate – after all, the original hutongs were built over the ruins of an older city – or perhaps the preservationists will get their way and the old communities will survive, restored rather than destroyed.

It is something to ponder as I find myself back on the same alleyway I first explored years earlier, dipping past the wet market where I used to get my veg, brushing past old men playing mahjong and the chattering crickets in their tiny cages, inhaling the rich, meaty scent from the chuan’r. It still feels the same. This is the living history of the city, set free from the propaganda of the museums, and it is going on all around me.

China, and indeed the rest of the world (a restaurant called “Hutong” opened in London’s ultra-modern The Shard building in 2013), would love to bottle and sell it, but it cannot beat the real thing. Rich and intoxicating, this ride does not require a ticket, just the willingness to lose yourself amid the city’s twisting narrow alleys. It is worth it in order to catch a glimpse of a world that, sadly, may be running out of time.

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