Just a block from Dongzhimen is Gulou Dong Dajie, a richly historic area that is home to some of Beijing'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 Beijing 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 Johnson-Hill moved to Nanluoguxiang 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 NLGX, 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 not just an option, but a must.
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