In Beijing, China’s massive, future-obsessed capital where people and things move in all directions at a dizzying pace, there's still room for a bohemia.
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 Beijing's downtown areas.
It's even given rise to that most modern of phenomena: the “hutong hipster”. Gulou Dong Dajie is one such area. In Beiluoguxiang, Fangjia, Ju’er or Baochao, three of its most vibrant hutongs (the alleyways that glue together the capital’s 800-year-old network of residential courtyards), the converted courtyard bars, boutiques and restaurants are that bit harder to find and that bit less 'played out'.
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.
“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's something I 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 ve; 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.
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