Home sweet hutong
I remember one day last summer taking a few twists and turns down different alleyways near Beijing's Yonghegong Lamasery in a deliberate attempt at getting lost.
Walking down one nameless alleyway, I came upon a small group of people relaxing outside in the heat of Beijing's late summer. As I passed them, I gave a quick smile. They smiled back and asked me to stop and take a seat.
The seats seemed an appropriate collection of chairs and stools dredged from those cast out from elsewhere - one an office chair with rolling wheels, another a simple wooden chair, and two stools that swayed when sat upon and stood a chance of collapsing at any moment.
With a touch of courtesy, a man about 40 years old offered me the office chair, the choice seat of the group. We lightheartedly struggled a few minutes over who should take the seat.
"Please sit," he said.
"No, no. I am younger than you, I can stand," I replied.
"But you are a guest. You've been walking." He said as he pushed me into the chair.
I took the chair, humble in most circumstances but honoured in this one. We chatted for about an hour. I can't remember much of the conversation, but the content was not the point.
As we tossed words around, the conversation took on the character of a game of hacky-sack - no aim except to keep the flow of a lazy afternoon. Nothing was there to pull us away and the talk turned from person to person, with some leaving their seats and others returning, then changing once again.
In the warmth of that company and falling afternoon sun, I decided I would trade in my high rise apartment and move into the hutongs - old Beijing's alleyway communities. The problem then became how to do it. How could I find a room and fit into a world so different from everything I had ever experienced?
From that point on, I dedicated each Saturday and Sunday to the pursuit of a hutong to call home. Initially I tried inquiring at the small shops that line the neighbourhoods around the Yonghegong Lamasery and the Drum Tower about places for rent.
I did not have much luck and left my phone number with several shopkeepers. After no replies the following week, I wrote up a small flyer saying that I wanted to live in a hutong courtyard and offering rent and English lessons.
A dream house
That weekend, I returned to the Drum Tower and handed out several flyers and posted more around the neighbourhood, including slipping a flyer into a glass display box intended for local police announcements.
It was my good fortune that the box was not locked, and that it caught the attention of one young resident.
The next day at work, I received a phone call from Li Ming, a young man with a stuttering voice. He told me his uncle had a hutong room for rent and offered to meet and show me the room.
Excited and anxious, I left work early and met Li and his sister in the square between the Drum and Bell Tower just as the sun was starting to fall. We walked about 15 minutes from the square towards the Forbidden City and ended at a small courtyard just before the west gate of Jingshan Park.
Approaching the courtyard gate, two neighbours sitting outside stopped us from entering. Li and his sister explained the situation and they reluctantly let us into the courtyard.
The courtyard was just as I had imagined it: A large tree with the thickness of a hundred years stood in the middle, with branches that sheltered the entire courtyard. There were long rooms on each side, forming a perfect rectangle.
Night was coming on as Li and his sister showed me the room. It was completely empty, but my imagination filled the room with lacquered furniture and the library of an imperial official. They told me their uncle was charging 1,000 yuan (US$121) a month for the rent, cheaper than other modern apartments I had seen.
After pacing around the courtyard a few minutes and taking it in, we went to eat dinner together. Li and his sister introduced me to some Old Beijing specialties and both my stomach and mind were sold on the move.
After a happy evening, I took the long bus ride back to my apartment building to dream of my days in the courtyard, just a few minutes walk from the Forbidden City. I had my heart set on meeting with Li's uncle the next day and asked a friend from work, Wang Feng, to come and help translate.
When we met things turned sour. Li's uncle, a well-dressed businessman with slicked hair, seemed frustrated about leaving work to meet us and wary of renting to a foreigner.
Wang talked with him, standing up for my character and trying to convince him that I would not be any trouble, but it seemed little use. We parted and I left with crushed hopes of getting the room. It seemed that I was not welcome after all.
The next day Li called me and I asked him if his uncle had reconsidered renting the room. He said no, but promised to help me find another place. I considered it a nice gesture, but figured nothing would come of it.
To my surprise, Li called later that week and had found another place for rent. We met again and Li led me down an alleyway just alongside the Bell Tower.
Together, we went down the Caochang Lane and opened the door to No 12. This neighbourhood shared little in common with the traditional siheyuan that I had just seen. Here, there were no nicely laid out courtyards, but dazayuan - courtyards expanded and modified as Beijing's population had grown.
It had a working-class feel that did not conjure up images of imperial officials, but merchants and factory workers. I met the landlady and she seemed too eager to rent to care that I was a foreigner.
She showed us to the room for rent, a small 15-square-metre room complete with a dirty sink, paint peeling from the walls, a few pieces of furniture abandoned by the previous tenant, and fake ivy strung around. Missing were a telephone, toilet, shower, or central heating.
It was neither beautiful nor comfortable, but it would do. After all, I was drawn to the hutongs for their vibrant public life not private comforts.
With a little negotiating, we settled on a rent of 600 yuan (US$72) a month and a down payment of 500 yuan (US$60) sealed the deal. I promised to bring three months rent with me when I moved in the next weekend.
Returning on Saturday, I threw all of my belongings into my backpack and took a taxi from my apartment in the northeast suburbs to the Drum and Bell Tower Square.
When I arrived, I was not quite sure which of the small alleyways was the right one. And I was reminded of an old Beijing expression which says, the names of the hutongs are "as many as the hairs on a cow."
Finally, finding the right lane, I unloaded my bags. Making trips back and forth down the alley too narrow for the car, I met the head of our hutong, the resident of No 1 Caochang Lane who I would later come to call laodaye, meaning grandfather. He was waiting at the entrance to our lane when the taxi pulled up.
Making my final trip back for a bag, I was not quite sure whether I had got my large backpack out of the trunk. When I asked the driver about the bag, laodaye stepped in and said I had better get a receipt and write down the licence plate of the driver in case anything was missing. The driver insisted I had got everything, but laodaye was not listening to him.
On laodaye's advice, I wrote down the driver's information and headed back to my place as the driver sped off.
I had unloaded everything just as the driver had said. I settled down to unpack my things into my new home.
After a half year living in my hutong, I have repainted and comfortably outfitted my room with old furniture carried by cart drivers on their way to a nearby market.
The interior reminds me of the chair that I sat in on that first lazy afternoon - charming in its simplicity and inelegance.
Laodaye waits outside our hutong each morning to ask me where I am headed and teaches me an old Beijing expression or two.
Recently, I walked past the first siheyuan I hoped to rent and wondered if I
would trade places given the chance. That was when I realized that the quiet
tranquility of the imperial official's siheyuan could never compare to living
among the old Beijingers whose simple warmth and charm had first brought me to