China / Society

Capital's iconic hutong alleyways continue to allure

By Yang Yao (China Daily) Updated: 2014-11-10 08:52

Capital's iconic <EM>hutong</EM> alleyways continue to allure
Rosalyn Shih says the hutong lifestyle creates a sense of community. Yang Yao / China Daily

For Rosalyn Shih, who was born in Canada and grew up in Hong Kong, living in a hutong in Beijing provides her with a nice balance of "two homes".

The 25-year old has been living in a traditional courtyard house amid the iconic alleyways near the capital's historic Houhai area for more than two years.

"I was born in suburban Toronto, where driveways, houses and people are sparse, but families all know each other. My next-door neighbors helped baby-sit for my parents when they needed someone to take care of us," she said.

"When my parents moved back to Hong Kong, I was initially unused to a place with such a high density of people. We lived in a typical high-rise apartment, and my mum joked that our next-door neighbor's window was so close that if we couldn't agree which TV station to watch, one of us could watch their TV from our living room instead. We never met those neighbors, and it was strange living next to them.

"Living in a hutong of Beijing has a nice balance. It has a high density of people and there is so much going on, but I don't always feel like I live next to strangers. I can't say I am friends with everyone in my hutong, but at least it feels like home."

To her, the distinctly Beijing hutong lifestyle is about people from different backgrounds who look out for each other and create a sense of community.

The hutong today originates from early Beijing's extensive network of residential zones, dating back to the time of Kublai Khan.

After the conquest of China and the founding of the Yuan Dynasty in the 13th century, Kublai Khan moved the capital of his empire from Karakorum in Mongolia to Dadu (present day Beijing) and constructed one of the world's most modern cities at the time.

The Chinese locals took the medieval Mongolian word for "water well," which phonetically sounded like hutong, and incorporated the word into Mandarin to describe these newly formed alleyways since these areas were where residents lived and fetched water. Today, hutong are found all over China, especially in the north, but Beijing was and still is considered the original hutong capital of China.

These old residential areas have also been increasingly revitalized as more young expats choose to live in them.

James Watson-Krips, a 27-year-old American, lived in hutong in the Paojutoutiao and Dongsishitiao areas.

"It is an experience I wouldn't trade for anything," he said. "Waking up each morning and walking past small restaurants, jockeying for position with pedicabs/food carts, or just simply admiring the area's stately architecture made each commute a new and fresh experience.

"I always found the sense of community and continuity to be extremely admirable. There you'll find people who've spent their whole lives in the same courtyard."

Watson-Krips, who speaks fluent Mandarin with an authentic Beijing accent, thinks that the hutong helped shaped the people they accommodate and there is certainly something to say for how that made them more down-to-earth.

Hutong living is a unique experience for the young people from a totally different background, and one that comes with its own exciting list of pros and cons.

"On the one hand, you're getting the ‘true' Beijing experience, feeling the pulse of the city and immersing yourself in a more traditional way of life more linked to a sense of community. You're also getting to enjoy an urban oasis, of sorts, one where the hustle and bustle of China's capital can feel miles away, even if a major thoroughfare is literally just down the street," Watson-Krips said.

"On the other hand though, it's not for the faint of heart, as concerns about heating, hygiene and even noise can create problems for the uninitiated. But all in all, I think it's an experience worth having … if not just for the educational value of seeing Beijing's traditional side."

To help adapt to the newcomers, many hutong in Beijing are renovated and remodeled to serve more commercial than residential functions.

Hanna Pickwell, 26, from the US State of Massachusetts, has been living in Baochao hutong since last year. She was charmed by the area the first time she visited it

"I got out of the train, walked south from Yonghegong, and stopped at the Wuyutai tea shop, which sold green-tea ice cream. My roommate and I thought it was the most delicious thing we'd ever had, and decided we had to live in this neighborhood. The trees shading Guozijian and the little temple shops playing that same Buddhist mantra on repeat made the area so magically charming," she said.

"There is variety architecturally but there is also variety in the ways that people use the space. … I like being surrounded by different kinds of people and different demographics. In the hutong, you see all sorts of people and animals walking around, their residences, businesses from bars to shops selling household goods, and even art spaces. I think it is the variety that makes it lively and makes it feel like home. If every hutong alley became commercialized, something would be lost; it would not feel like an authentic home anymore, it would feel like a commercial space."

Some of the hutong lovers from overseas have also tried to preserve its culture. Watson-Krips used to work in an NGO called the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center in 2011. He was a part of the center's Heritage Trail project, which worked to catalog the city's hutong neighborhoods via historical research and photography, which they planned to use in creating self-guided walking tour brochures of each area.

"I was part of the first phase in Nanluoguxiang and each day I would spend the morning photographing a specific alleyway, literally one step at a time, and then return to the office to stitch the photos into a single panorama before researching the alley's history," he said.

"We completed all eight of the area's alleyways by the time I finished, although the brochures themselves were never published. In a way, you might say it was indicative of the larger hutong preservation movement, as more of the city's alleys are disappearing each year. But at the same time, the government has been very adamant in protecting key areas from further demolition," he said.

"This is certainly encouraging, but who knows if it will be enough."

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