Tag Archives: beijing

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Saving Beijing’s Street Cats

Features Editor

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If, like me and many others, you’re more of a dog than cat person, you may be wondering why we’ve dedicated this week’s upload to the plight of Beijing’s stray cats.

Let’s start with the numbers. Despite my preference for canines, it hasn’t gone unnoticed that cat ownership is booming, especially in China, and the figures back it up.

Cats are the world’s most popular pets, outnumbering dogs by three to one. In China, there are an estimated 58million cats, a mere 30million fewer than in the US, which has the highest number of cats in the world and will be celebrating them during National Cat Day this Saturday.

Whilst China hasn’t (yet) gone to such lengths as to have a national day for their feline friends, the pet industry is forecast to grow by more than 50% in the next three years.

But despite our love affair with pets, life for some of cats is far from purr-fect (sorry readers) and China is no exception. Which brings us to today’s content -where we follow some of the dedicated volunteers saving Beijing’s street cats and rehoming them through monthly adoption days.

The Chinese have a long history with having cats as pets. Research into cat bones unearthed in archaeological excavations in 2001 show that the Chinese were living alongside Asian leopard cats as early as 5,500 years ago.  Miao!

Still, the lengths these volunteers go to are astonishing.

Sure, on the surface, there are the obvious jobs of picking up abandoned animals, organizing the monthly adoption days and running social media campaigns to find potential new owners. Which is impressive enough alongside working full time and having a family of their own.

But then we meet Xiao Zhan, who arrives for filming wearing a mask. She’s a seasoned volunteer, having helped many animals over the last 3 years. But it turns out she has an allergy to animals that is sometimes so bad she has to seek hospital treatment. She sneezes frequently through our filming.

So why not quit, get a new hobby? This is someone who, in her own words, couldn’t ‘bare the look in their eyes’ if she stopped volunteering and left the animals to their fate on the streets.

Our next contributor Ling Yinmin is extraordinary. As we film her in a flat all set up for the cats, she reveals that she pays the rent herself out of her own pocket. Remember, this is Beijing, a place we love, but still one of the most expensive cities to rent in the world. Add to that the cost of getting the pets fighting fit for their future family and we’re talking a small fortune.

They believe the cost is worth it – over the last five years Ling Yanmin, Xiao Zhan and many other dedicated volunteers have found new families for over 1000 animals.

Interested in helping these volunteers or giving a pet a forever home?

Search for ‘Beijing Adoption Day’ in Weibo and WeChat.

Why Beijing is a Great City for Jazz Music

By Terry Hsieh, Jazz Musician based in Beijing

Beijing’s underground music scene has been heralded as an epicenter of creativity in China: you can find everything, from dark noise, to grunge, rock, hip hop and avant garde jazz.

I’ve been a jazz musician in Beijing for nearly four years now.

I’ve had the privilege of seeing and even sometimes performing with some of the most amazing jazz headliners in Beijing, over the past few years: The Yellowjackets, Herbie Hancock, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Robin Eubanks, Jaleel Shaw, Snarky Puppy, Richard Sussman just to name a few.

There’s creative jazz music nearly every night of the week in Beijing: from jam sessions, where musicians congregate to play jazz standards and talk shop and network, to international headlining acts, where world famous musicians come to share their craft with the community. In July 2016, New York saxophone legend Antonio Hart, who spends time in China every year, quipped, after a workshop at Beijing’s East Shore Jazz Cafe: “Beijing cats don’t mess around!”final-cut-trombone-footage-terry-audio-00_01_31_00-still011

There’s also a sense of authenticity that resonates with many of the musicians here: “There’s a strong sense of Chinese culture and authenticity in Beijing, being a foreigner here you really experience that,” says Anthony Vanacore, a drummer from New York who’s been in Beijing for just a year. Traditional Chinese melodies infiltrate into the jazz idiom: musicians like guitarist Liu Yue and pianist Xia Jia have written modern jazz arrangements that include such melodies, reharmonizing and reworking them for piano trio with bass and drums, and even with horns and traditional Chinese instruments.

But most importantly (and concretely), there seems to be a community in Beijing that forms around jazz music– one that doesn’t necessarily exist in other music scenes in other places in China. On any given Tuesday, a crowd of jazz musicians descend on the jam session at Jiang Hu bar, an old traditional courtyard house that’s been converted to a performance space. It doesn’t feel like a New York session where the musicians are there to prove a point and call each other out, but a place where people are trying new ideas, patterns and concepts they’ve been practicing on their own, over jazz standards with a live band. Sometimes there’s a great crowd. Other times, the house is practically empty, but the band plays just the same. Despite the fact that they make about $30 a night, you’ll find the same guys coming back week after week. Do they need the money? Probably, but they’re also in it for the musical work out. Perhaps it suggests that a creative music scene can exist not just in spite of, but because of a lack of mainstream support. When you can make a lot of money playing a particular style or even song, it can affect your aesthetic judgment. In other words, it allows us to keep the main thing–the art–the main thing.

Terry’s blog is extracted from an article originally published in Forbes

For more from Beijing, learn how to live like a local or check out explore the art of the Beijing Subway

 

Tea Making-Masterclass (FT. KATE HUMBLE)

News and Travel Editor

If your brew is never quite how you like it, then you’re not alone.

It takes FIVE WHOLE YEARS to learn the art of drinking and serving tea in China.

So spare a thought for British TV presenter Kate Humble who China Icons challenged to learn the basics of the Chinese tea ceremony in just one day in Beijing!

See what Kate learnt about making and tasting Chinese tea – and how you too can produce a better cup at home.

Kate’s top tips include warming up all the vessels you need to make the tea and using more leaves than you think you need.

Are you a fan of Kate Humble? Check out her exclusive interview with China Icons about travelling around China during Chinese New Year, also known as Spring Festival.

Want to know more about different types of Chinese tea and how they are produced? Our content from Fujian shows you how the leaves make it from plantation to tea cup, or check out this guide.
Planning to to visit some tea plantations on your travels? Our tea lovers guide to Fujian tells you where to go and what to see.

What’s your favourite type of Chinese Tea? Let us know in the comments below!

8 Years On: Beijing’s Olympic Buildings

News and Travel Editor

As Brazil welcomes the world to Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Olympics, many other countries will look back fondly to the year that their country took world centre stage and hosted the Olympic games. Along with London, Athens and Sydney, Beijing is amongst the most recent predecessors; in 2008 Beijing shocked and impressed audiences across the globe with expensive and breathtaking structures and an unforgettable opening ceremony. Beijing 2008 had firmly planted China back on the map.Each city that holds the games must, of course, be able to prove that it has adequate venues and facilities to house thousands of athletes and spectators, but what becomes of the iconic Olympic buildings after the games leave town? Often costing thousands or millions of pounds in upkeep each year, these buildings often pose a challenge for governments across the globe.

Sydney’s Olympic Park still hosts a number of sporting events as well as having undergone a series of developments that have led to it becoming its own suburb. The local government has, however, been criticised for not constructing a sufficient plan for the park post-Olympics; the suburb has largely failed to attract businesses and often remains deserted unless a sports event is taking place, even after £1.34 billion worth of investments.

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Stadium Australia. Photo by Adam J.W.C.

Many of the venues in London are still regularly used following the 2012 Olympics; the Olympic Stadium has undergone various transformations and is now West Ham United’s training stadium as well as host to a flowing influx of concerts and events. London Aquatics Centre and other sports facilities are now open to the public and the velodrome now belongs to Lee Valley VeloPark, which caters for cyclists of all types and abilities.

It is a very different sight from the derelict and abandoned Olympic stadiums and courts built for the 2004 Olympic games in Athens. Most of the overgrown and forgotten buildings are completely deserted, serving as an Olympic ghost town.

Four years later, it was China’s turn to host its first ever Olympic games. Beijing’s Olympic Park is a must-see on any tourist’s agenda, with millions of visitors flocking to the site each year. Many of the Olympic facilities remain well kept and alive; Beijing National Stadium, also known as the iconic “Bird’s Nest”, mainly relies on substantial amounts of tourists to cover the costs of the $9 million yearly upkeep costs.

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The iconic ‘Bird’s Nest’ Stadium

Though the stadium has an 80,000 capacity and poses as one of Beijing’s most iconic modern buildings, it has still failed to attract the vast numbers of concerts and events that its planners had predicted. However, it does host the occasional football game, such as the Italian Supercup in 2011 and 2012. (Curious about how the giant steel structure gets cleaned? Have a look at this)

Across the road from the Birds Nest lies the aquatics centre, otherwise known as the Water Cube, now a waterpark with slides and attractions open to the public.

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Beijing’s Water Cube. Photo by Li Yong.

Fewer foreigners make the one subway stop north of the stadium where the well tended Olympic forest lies; a heavenly stretch of lush greenery and lakes planted in a tightly packed concrete city. The Olympic forest remains open to the public and is a pillar of Beijing society, providing a place for children and adults alike to exercise along scenic jogging and cycling paths.

Beijing will also, of course, be hosting the Winter 2022 Olympics, when the stadium and Water Cube be again put to good use; another chance for China to demonstrate its role as a key performer on the world stage.

 

Are you excited for Rio 2016? What’s your favourite event? If you’ve been loving the gymnastics, check out our interview with China’s Gold Medal Gymnast,  Zhang Chenglong.

 

Live Like a Local in Beijing

News and Travel Editor

Most people are familiar with the landmarks of Beijing, but what are the other must-sees that locals would recommend?  We’ve rounded up our top tips to help you live like a local during your stay in Beijing. 

    1. If you want a green way to get around Beijing, why not hire a bicycle? Skip the traffic and head up the backstreets to take in the sights and sounds of the city in between your destinations.
    2. Get up early and join in “morning exercise” at any city park – line dancing, ballroom dancing, Chinese opera, tai-chi, badminton, aerobics, martial arts of all kinds …There’s something for everyone.
    3. Hou Hai Lake –  ‘Back Lake’ – is the largest of the three lakes of the Shichahai area of central Beijing, and is a great place to cool off on a hot day. The man-made lake has beautiful views, and there’s plenty of places to grab some food or a drink to sit down and enjoy them.
    4. We can’t discuss Beijing and not talk about Food. Make sure you head to Gulou and try mantou (steamed bread) fresh out of its bamboo steamer. Apparently Beijing Duck tastes better in Beijing than anywhere else, so try it the traditional way with pancakes, cucumbers and Hoisin sauce to see for yourself! Hotpot, with fresh vegetables and hand-pulled noodles, is not to be missed. For a less traditional eating experience, stop by the Cat Cafe for cuddles with your coffee.
    5. Jingshan Park dates from the Ming dynasty and its design is based on the principles of fengshui, with a hill to protect the Forbidden City from northern winds.  Its Wanchun Pavilion is the highest point in Beijing. It’s the best place to get a bird’s eye view of the Forbidden City and at sunset on a clear day you get a great view of the spiky mountains that surround Beijing to the West and North.
    6. Karaoke bars, known by locals as KTV, are huge in China. So huge, there’s over 100,000 karaoke bars in total. Do as the locals do and have a go to see what the fuss is all about.
    7. Be a part of Beijing’s history by walking down Qianmen Street. The 600 year old pedestrian street is full of shops and restaurants. You can visit China’s oldest brands and learn more about traditional silks and shoes. On Chinese Public holidays, you can hop on the tram to get a lift from the top to the bottom! Turn off the main street to experience the narrow alleyways of a vibrant traditional hutong.  This area was once the haunt of Beijing’s artistes and performers, and it’s still got a lively, bustling feel with tiny restaurants and atmospheric wine shops.  
    8. 798 Art District is the site of Beijing’s most-established modern art scene. The “District” is in fact a complex of decommissioned buildings,   filled with a diverse selection of ambitious exhibits. Cycle ten minutes to the North, and you reach Caochangdi, an up-and-coming art community that some insiders say is beginning to rival 798 for innovation and creativity.
    9. One of the most peaceful and beautiful ancient sites in Beijing is the Confucius Temple.  Among the elegant buildings are dozens of standing stones, with the carved names of every single person who passed the Imperial examinations – stretching back hundreds of years.  These highly-educated officials were the backbone of the Chinese administration from the 600s until the examination’s abolition in 1905.
    10. Take a ride on Metro line Number 8.  Built for the 2008 Olympics,  each station’s decoration is unique and matches what’s going on above ground.  Ride North to the huge Olympic Forest park with its lake, hills and trees, and then walk slowly back into the city via the Olympic Green, site of the iconic Bird’s Nest stadium and Water Cube.  

Get more top tips from Beijinger Lee as he shows you his top tips for a weekend in Beijing.