The hidden heart of old Beijing
The Jakarta Post -- WEEKENDER | Sun, 11/23/2008 3:14 PM |
Modernization and the wrecker’s ball are changing the face of Beijing. Cameron Broadhurst strolls through the old quarter of the Chinese capital where time stands still – for now.
Once upon a time, before steel and glass towers scraped the sky and the air became thick with the dust of construction, the old city of Beijing was laid head to toe with endless alleyways that wove between courtyards and back-to-back dwellings. Ancient maps show that, aside from the grand imperial palaces and temples of the capital, these alleys covered most of the city.
But the hutong, as they are known, are in increasingly rare supply in Beijing: Shopping malls, superhighways and towering apartment complexes now dominate the modern capital. Yet thankfully, are a few remaining quarters where the hutong, and their natural complement, the siheyuan courtyard houses, survive. Amid the adrenalin of change driving China, just finding one of these old areas can be a welcome relief for the traveler seeking what makes Beijing its own city, and not just another Asian megalopolis.
What’s brilliant about the areas where hutong have remained, or are even under preservation orders, is that they are a stone’s throw from some of Beijing’s major sights. The Forbidden City has some interesting side alleys outside the grounds. Temples such as Fayuan Si and the White Pagoda temple, Ba Tai Si, are surrounded by them.
And then there is the quarter just southwest of Tiananmen Square.
The square, with its gargantuan surrounding buildings and constant crowds, is often an overwhelming experience. But head just into the Qianmen and Hepingmen quarters and suddenly you see the first hutong signposted off the main thoroughfare. Turn down an alley, and it’s like stumbling across hidden treasure.
You’ve entered a private neighborhood, and the locals will often greet you with a nod and a smile. Or they just stare, perhaps wondering what in hell you’re doing down their lane – either way it’s lot more personal than anything you can expect along the capital’s clogged main streets.
As you move through the various hutong, you’ll wander past locals coming and going about their daily business. There are vendors on bikes pulling carts of groceries or bricks. Children run up and down the alleys in play. Women probably old enough to have witnessed the birth of Communist China sit on chairs yakking and laughing.
Tiny Pekinese and other suitably ugly small breeds of dogs run around and yap absurdly, while mothers help their babies defecate on the pavement through specially designed crotchless pants. In many ways, it’s a glimpse of what old Beijing might have been like, when the culture of the street was once fundamental.
Further on, an eclectic collection of shops appears along the alley: a grocery, a butcher’s shop, hair salons, a grain store – variety enough to make the whole hutong community self-sustaining.
Most of the hutong are fairly run down, with old brick and plaster walls and weed-covered tile roofs. Cracked wood, broken tiles and missing bricks are common. Chili and other plants sit on rooftops and roadsides. From the alley, residents come in and out of wooden doors that lead onto small open-air paths connecting their rooms.
The dilapidation of some quarters contrasts with the more presentable appearance of others, but hutong residents are not necessarily poor. Even the shabbier hutong are not thought of as slums. The alleys are dotted with cars as well, which sit awkwardly in spaces never designed to accommodate them. In certain quarters, such as the outskirts of the Forbidden City, some hutong house the large siheyuan courtyard dwellings, where well-to-do officials may reside.
Hutong go far back in Beijing’s history, and with that comes a heritage of intriguing names. Sanjing hutong was originally known in the 16th century as “Three Eyes Well” because of three wells that could be drawn from at the same time. Once the wells dried up some time later, it became “Three Wells” (Sanjing).
Other names hint at former histories, such as Yandai Xie Jie (Tobacco Pipe Lane) and even Xian Y Kou Jie (Fresh Fish Corner St) – the latter claimed by locals to be a corruption of salty fish, in reference to a fellow who burned down half the lane preparing his favorite food.
In the larger swathes of interconnected hutong, such as in the area south of Qianmen, streets are said to range from 50 centimeters to 10 meters wide. Getting lost in the maze is much of the appeal, and surely the perfect antidote to the uncompromisingly massive structure of Beijing. But you can soon lose your orientation. When I eventually emerged onto a main street, I headed south for 15 minutes, convinced I was northward bound.
The Hepingmen hutong ultimately merge into Liulichang, a 300-year-old side street that houses a charming variety of antique stores, traditional painting galleries and tea houses. Stopping to purchase some bone snuff cases, I strike up a conversation with the young storeowner.
“Of course, young people these days don’t like hutong so much,” he tells me. “Some have a big yard, but if they don’t it’s not comfortable. Sometimes for one yard, there are 15 families.”
But he says the Hepingmen/Qianmen hutong areas are preserved by government order, unlike other areas of the capital, which over time have been bulldozed for apartment blocks and massive office buildings. In fact, many former hutong dwellers move without complaint, eager for the central heating, decent plumbing and security that apartments offer.
It is said that a major reason for the destruction of many hutong is the land revenue generated for Beijing’s municipal governments, such as in Dong Cheng with its reputation for forceful evictions and bad resettlements. However, many such hutong areas there and elsewhere are also now preserved.
Even local Chinese who don’t live in the hutong enjoy touring them. A colleague enjoys cycling them by night with a friend. With the endless lanes there are always new places to find. The saunter through the hutong leaves a strong impression, inspiring yet more intimate and relaxing than traversing the endless concrete around Beijing’s defining monuments.
“Yes,” agrees the storeowner. “They are like … How do you call it?” He searches his dictionary.
Famous hutong areas:
- South of Hepingmen/Qianmen
- Northwest of Xi Si
- Back Lakes area (Shicha Hai) and Dianmen
- Nan Luogu Xiang (a dynamic area famous for Chinese hipsters and foreign bohemians)
It’s easy to tour on your own by foot or bike, but there are also guided tours in English available.
Cycle tours: www.cyclechina.com
Beijing Hutong Tourist Agency, Tel (010) 6615 3097