Category Archives: Life in China

Exploring the Hutongs of Beijing

Features Editor

If you ever visit Beijing you must make time for the hutong.  The word dates back to the time when Khublai Khan made Beijing his capital.  At that time the word meant “well”, then it evolved to mean “narrow lane” in Mandarin but today, in English at least, it stands for those areas of one storey houses, giant trees and narrow alleyways where visitors can get a glimpse of life in “Old Beijing.” (And a craft beer and a vegan lunch, of which more later).

People who visited Beijing in the 1920s said it was like a garden: from a high point, perhaps on the walls that still surrounded the city, all you could see were trees.  You can get a sense of that even today if you climb Jingshan hill, immediately behind the Forbidden City.  Look south and the imperial yellow roofs of the hundreds of buildings of the former Palace gleam.  Look north and west and you are surrounded by trees.  Now imagine that stretching to the edges of the city…and lift your eyes to the mountains beyond.

The reason for all those trees was largely to do with the way the hutong areas were laid out.  In Old Beijing, extended families lived in rectangular courtyard homes, known as “Siheyuan”.  Four oblong buildings, one storey high and roofed with elegant grey tiles, were arranged on four sides of a central courtyard.  In the middle of that courtyard would be a tree, which gave shade and – if it was a pomegranate – also signified good luck, prosperity and many children for the family.  The rectangle of the siheyuan was always laid out strictly north-south; and which family members lived in which of the four buildings flanking the central courtyard was determined by tradition and feng shui.

As the siheyuan were built side by side, the courtyards created a grid system of narrow alleyways, the majority running east-west, but a few running south-north.  From above all you would have seen would have been those trees…

Over the generations, with space in the capital at a premium, most of the central courtyards have been filled in with other buildings and large numbers of people, mostly not related, now live within the rectangle of each former siheyuan.  Luckily most of the trees seem to have survived.  To the visitor, catching a glimpse of shaded, ramshackle buildings through a half open door, it all looks very romantic. But I hear the old courtyard houses are chilly places to live in winter, and baking hot in summer; and of course they have few mod cons compared to the apartments most Beijingers live in today.  In the last 50 years, and increasingly from the 1990s, the hutong have been demolished to make way for new development.  In the years just before the 2008 Olympics, this redevelopment reached such a crescendo that many people in the city feared the hutong would disappear for ever.  Luckily the city authorities realised in the time that these areas of traditional housing and living were as essential a part of Beijing’s long history and culture as the more impressive historical buildings and as a consequence worthy of protection. Now, a a considerable number have been earmarked for protection. And a steady process of renovation and modernisation – which some call gentrification – is under way.

9

For a visitor to the city, a wander through the hutong – whether renovated or not – can be a relaxing antidote to the sometimes overwhelming size and scale of Beijing. Tiananmen Square, the  Forbidden City, the skyscrapers of Chaoyang, the many 6 lane highways are all built on a giant scale.  Everything in the hutong is, in contrast, on a very human scale.  You can walk at your own pace –  peep through red-painted doors with their lion’s head door-knockers into secret courtyards, where flowers in blue and white pots and grapes and gourds hanging from trellises can be seen.  You can linger to watch a group of men playing cards or buy freshly-made steamed bread from tiny shops.  There’s always something interesting to see.  And the amazing thing is that, despite being in the heart of a city of 20 million, it’s magically quiet in the residential hutong and there are no crowds.  You can’t really get lost, either, as the grid system is easy to navigate and logical; and in my experience if you turn down what locals know is a dead end, someone will immediately set you right with friendly smiles and gestures.

13

Hutong have also proved the perfect place for bars, cafes and shops selling high quality craftsmen-made goods (and tourist trinkets of course.) The narrow streets are tailor-made for pedestrians – and renovated siheyuan make stylish, traditional-looking restaurants.   Craft breweries, vegan cafes, bars where you can sample dozens of different kinds of baijiu; live music, free wifi, squashy sofas, good cappuccinos – all are available in the more commercial hutong. Nanluguoxiang is perhaps the busiest of these renovated hutong.

You can also take a pedicab tour as Mary-Ann did in the busy hutong near Houhai, or behind the Bell and Drum Towers and get some historical background to the hutong and the siheyuan.

1

 

But if like me you love an aimless wander where you never know what’s round the next corner – try heading off to one of these hutong, some of my favourites:

Daxilan – South of Qianmen, once famous as the raffish quarter where musicians and artists lived.  Visit the flashy shops on the renovated north-south main street if you must, but then duck into the buzzing side alleys to the west for lively small restaurants and ancient wine shops – a feast for the eyes even if you don’t want to eat

Zhongjianzixiang  – Walk north up Wangfujing – and then just keep walking as it turns into a narrower street and eventually, after a couple of rights and lefts, into a hutong. After an enjoyable walk, you will reach the delightful and often overlooked Confucius Temple,  near Lama Temple Metro station. On the way, it’s a fascinating hutong, once famous for making horse scissors, and now lively with elderly people playing Go and Mahjong; shop- keepers selling fresh vegetables; abundant roof gardens and small children trying to ride scooters twice their size. Check out stylish clothing and interiors store Once upon a time just west of the Confucius Temple.

North-east of Zhangzizhong subway station – Take the oldest map of Beijing, and take one from today, and the layout of the streets in this quarter is almost exactly the same. Time travel to the era of Khublai Khan’s capital, Dadu, when the hutong first came into existence.

Wudaoling, west of the Lama Temple – This is an up-and-coming commercial hutong where Mary-Ann finished her hutong exploration.  As well as the hotpot restaurant she visited, there’s good organic vegan food at The Vegan Table; or delicious Vietnamese-inspired fusion at Susu. There are all kinds of shops as well as the porcelain store she explored, including clothing, vintage, leather goods and you can even hire a bike here.  Take any left turn to plunge deeper into residential areas.

18

Gulou – Around the Drum and Bell Towers is good for bars and for all kinds of live music, whether your taste runs to jazz or to traditional Chinese music (Meet jazz musician Terry Hsieh who performs at Jianghu Bar regularly).  Caochang hutong starts on Gulou street and wiggles its way to the Drum Tower through a calm and flower-bedecked network of quiet alleyways.  There’s even the Peace café at No 37, where you can sit on the shaded deck and watch the world go by.

Do you have a favourite?

The Fireworks Man: The Alternative Way to Celebrate Chinese New Year

News and Travel Editor

What do you think of when someone mentions Chinese New Year? Some people think of the colour red, the Chinese Dragon, red money envelopes, or even dash to travel home – Did you know 2.98 billion trips are expected this year?! And who can forget the spectacular firework displays happening across the Spring Festival period.

For 14 generations, Xue Jianguo and his family have been creating firework displays with a spectacular twist (You definitely shouldn’t try this at home).

The tradition arose when local villagers couldn’t afford firework shows for their New Year celebrations. Logically, the next best thing was to throw molten iron into the air to create cascading sparks – it’s a good job he’s wearing that straw hat! However beautiful this may be, Jianguo admits the job is quite dangerous.

fireworksman4

So, where is the best place around the world to celebrate Chinese New Year and watch the fireworks? We have our top four, what are yours?

4) London
This is the world’s largest Chinese New Year celebration outside Asia. The best areas to head to are Trafalgar Square, Shaftesbury Avenue and, of course, Chinatown.

3) New York
If you’re not in China and you want grand and flashy, New York is the place to be. There are three separate parades across several days of celebrations: the Firecracker Ceremony, the Lunar New Year Parade and the Chinatown Lunar New Year Parade and Festival. New York is perfect for blending old and new Chinese New Year traditions.

2) Beijing
Celebrating in Beijing this year? If so, Temple Fairs are a must! They’re full of traditional performances, arts & crafts and local street food. We love Ditan Park Temple Fair – it is after all one of the biggest and most popular. If you have time, head to a park to watch athletic competitions and demonstrations.

1) Hong Kong
Probably the most colourful out of all our destinations. Expect incredible fireworks, festive markets and parades. The Victorian Harbour is the best spot for the fireworks, but make sure you find time to watch the night parade along Tsim Sha Tsuji. Naturally, Hong Kong Disney also make an appearance. 

hk-cny
Image by Michael Elleray. Licensed under CC 2.0.

How are you celebrating Chinese New Year? Where do you think is the best place to watch the fireworks this year? Send us your pictures and comments and we’ll feature them on our Twitter and Facebook pages at @ChinaIcons!

Stocking Up for Chinese New Year

News and Travel Editor

It’s coming up to the most important event in the Chinese calendar – Chinese New Year! We’re about to enter the Year of the Rooster once more, and if you were born in 1933, 1945, 1957, 1969, 1981, 1993 or 2005 then this is your year! Everyone has already started with their preparations.

Our very own Coco is going to give you some top tips on all the essentials for your Chinese New Year celebrations. We’re also going to delve deeper into some of these fascinating traditions revealed by Coco in our video below.

Coming up to Chinese New Year, the colour red is an absolute must. Red symbolises luck, happiness and joy. It’s also common in Chinese weddings and other celebrations. This has been the case since the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644), when only the Emperor’s close relatives could have red walls, and the peasants had to put up with blue walls – how annoying!

Coco seems like a big fan of this one: Red envelopes are usually given to the younger generation after the New Year’s Feast (lucky for some…). It’s very important that the money shouldn’t appear with a ‘4’ in it (such as 44 or 444), as the pronunciation is very similar to ‘death’. You also shouldn’t open the envelope in front of the person who gave it to you which is considered impolite (probably so there’s no arguments over who received what and why!).

2016-12-16 (10).png

Last, but certainly not least, a few days before the Chinese New Year celebrations, people will often clean their whole house to get rid of the old and welcome the new. We’ve given you plenty of notice so no excuses now!

Have you already started your preparations? Do you have any fun traditions you think the rest of us should take up?

Check in next week for a spectacular insight into the ‘Fireworks Man’, a man and his family, who for 14 generations, have created their own fireworks with a jaw-dropping twist. We’ll also be giving you the lowdown on the best places in China to celebrate the New Year and to watch the world famous fireworks.

Living the Dream in China: A New Year’s Resolution

News and Travel Editor

Happy 2017!  As we fast approach the Chinese New Year and the Year of the Rooster, it’s the perfect time to reflect back on the past year, as well as think of a couple of those dreaded New Year Resolutions…

Fear not! Here at China Icons, we can think of one that’s a bit more exciting than heading to the gym everyday for a week before giving up until next year. If your resolutions include travelling or even relocating, there’s never been a better time to make China a part of your itinerary.

Whether you want to go to China to teach, be an entrepreneur, study at a Chinese university, or simply travel, China has it all. It’s a country where the ancient and the modern coalesce  The most popular destinations for many travellers include Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai, where old traditions and fast-paced modern life intertwine perfectly. This is probably why it’s estimated that 600,000 foreigners currently live in China, as well as having 328,000 foreign students in 2012.

We have the perfect insight into travellers who have followed their dream in China, with many opting to permanently settle there. Many  of our China Icons videos explore the stories of these people, from Pol, a Turkish Games Designer, to Lee, a Television Presenter and Writer. We want to share the very best with you and to hopefully give you some inspiration on how you can follow your dream in China.

#5
A Games Designer in China

Turkish Games Designer, Pol, based himself in Guangzhou at the heart of the gaming development community. Go behind the scenes with Pol and find out more about what you can get up to in Guangzhou when the sun goes down.

#4 
Lee’s Life in Beijing

Lee is a British Television Presenter and Writer and moved to Beijing when he was 26 years old. Lee explains how he started his own TV series analysing film reviews.

#3
Marion’s Life in Tibet

Now we head away from the big cities with Marion, who moved to Tibet from France and trained herself to become a mountain climber and even had the chance to take on the awe-inspiring Mt. Everest. Marion explains what attracted her to Tibet’s fascinating landscape and culture.

#2
Stunning embroidery of China’s Miao People

Fiona is an Australian ER Doctor, but moved to China to become a food writer and photo blogger. Watch below to find out more about Fiona’s journey to visit the Miao People and their amazing traditions.

#1
War Horse Theatre Director Alex Sims

War Horse has become a worldwide phenomenon and British Theatre Director, Alex Sims, has taken it to China. Go behind the scenes of the National Theatre of China and one of the biggest theatre productions in the world.

 

Do you fancy your hand in any of these professions? Are you travelling to China this year and have these videos persuaded you to maybe stay a little longer? Let us know in the comments below!

Check in next week for an insight into this year’s, world famous, Harbin Ice Festival and take a look at some of the stunning sculptures making an appearance this year.

Christmas in Shangri La

News and Travel Editor

It’s Christmas, we promised you some festive cheer and at China Icons, we’ll never let you down. Here is our Christmas special blog and video!

Ever wondered how Christmas is celebrated in the most remote provinces in China? In Shangri La, Yunnan Province, Christmas is an extremely popular and important time of year. It’s a time when the whole community celebrate together through the night of Christmas Eve and into the next day. So settle down with a glass of mulled wine, a mince pie, and relax whilst you watch our peak into Christmas in Shangri La…

You might have noticed a significant lack of the white stuff in our video. Don’t worry! We’ve made up for it below, with a collection of our favourite winter scenes in China. Don’t forget to comment with your favourites and to let us know how you’ll be celebrating Christmas this year.

winter-in-china-1
Image by Allen Watkin.

prince-teng-pavillion-winterA beautiful shot of the Pavilion of Prince Teng in Nanchang, Jiangxi Province.

anhui-winter-storms
Image by 张悦洋 (Zhang Yueyang).

A Chinese Winter storm hits Hefei in Anhui Province back in 2008.

great-wall-winter
Image by Roderick Eime. Licensed under CC 2.0.

Fancy trekking the Great Wall at this time of year?

summer-palace-winter
Image by Bridget Coila. Licensed under CC 2.0.

A very atmospheric pic of the Summer Palace in Winter.

We hope this blog has made you cosy and glad to be indoors, it looks pretty chilly in some of those pictures! Comment below with your favourite winter scenes and with whatever you’ll be getting up to this Christmas.

Chinese Paper Cutting Art

News and Travel Editor

Planning on getting crafty with your gifts this Christmas? Or want to have some extra special snowflakes for your window? How about having a go at the art of Chinese Paper Cutting?

If you’re wondering how to get started, learn from the master in this week’s new video. Zhou Shuying has been paper cutting for decades.  You’ll see that her work is different from the Chinese paper cuts you may be more familiar with…

Paper cutting, the art of cutting paper with scissors or a small knife, started in the 4th Century. Originally it was an art form for high-society women to use as embroidery stencils, but soon began to spread wider and be used decoratively. 
Fast forward to the 21st century to see how this intricate and ancient art-form has shaped one woman’s life forever.
Here at China Icons we hope this gives you some Christmas-craft inspiration!
Do you like hand-made Christmas gifts? What will you be making this year? Let us know in the comments below!

In The News This Month | November

News and Travel Editor

Welcome to the latest China Icons ‘In The News’ blog, rounding up the best stories of the month. As always, so much has been going on this month! But worry not, China Icons has it covered – from World Philosophy Day and Singles Day to medical advancements and ancient discoveries. Read on to find out more!

It’s a spectacular time for science and medicine as a patient has been able to grow a new ear from a transplant on his arm, as he lost his old ear in a car accident. In other news, a Chinese farmer ingeniously created a rotating bed to relieve the pain and cure his wife from kidney stones. Most of us are lucky if we get a cup of tea without asking!

It has been an exciting month for archaeologists as they discovered a new ‘weird bird-like’ dinosaur on a building site of a new high school in Jiangxi Province.

It was also announced that recent discoveries may shed new light on the many cultural influences that may have shaped the various objects and treasures buried with the First Emperor. A radical theory has suggested that inspiration for these spectacular treasures may have come from abroad, with discoveries of bronze ducks, swans and cranes inside the Royal Tomb thought to be of Greek origin.

Terracotta Army
Terracotta Army. Image by Jean-Marie Hullot. Attributed under CC 2.0.

A huge amount of money has been flowing into China this month, from the 25 year old who has built a $500 million startup based on a bike share scheme, to China’s biggest online travel agency, Ctrip, purchasing UK startup Skyscanner for the whopping amount of $1.7 billion. Not to mention the casual $35 billion that has been invested by China in the new Silk Road in Pakistan.

11th November saw (many of us) celebrate Singles Day, which is becoming less to do with being single and more to do with grabbing as many bargains as possible. Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba, created the event back in 2009 and the day has gone from strength to strength, with sales reaching 102 billion yuan ($15 billion) on Alibaba by 8pm.

On a slightly more cultural note, 17th November was World Philosophy Day, and we all know that you can’t talk about philosophy without talking about China. Take a look at our blog here on everything from Confucius to Sun Tzu, and all their proverbs in between.

confucius-1
Image source: “Life And Works Of Confucius”, Prospero Intorcetta, et al., 1687.

Finally, for all you Toy Story fans out there, it was announced this month that Shanghai Disneyland is to expand with a brand new Toy Story themed area! Unfortunately, we do have to wait until 2018 when we’ll be able to meet Woody and Buzz.

Join us next month for an exclusive peek at Shangri La in the Snow (perfect for some Christmas viewing), a well as so much more from arts and culture to natural wonders and travel in China. December is bound to be a busy one!

Interested in finding out more on stories such as these? Be sure to subscribe to our YouTube Channel for more incredible videos about China.