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.
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.
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.
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.
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?