A New-look for the Old Hutong in Caochang
Caochang, in the south of Beijing, contains 10 northsouth hutong with a long history and traditional Beijing culture. Renovations in the area are improving the local environment, as well as the lives of its residents.
Most hutong (traditional alleys) in Beijing run eastwest, but a rectangularshaped area near Qianmen Avenue, called Caochang (“Grass Factory”), contains 10 north-south hutong with a long history and traditional Beijing culture. After visiting Qianmen Gate south of Tian’anmen Square, one can walk southeast to Xianyukou Street (a traditional Beijing business street) then continue east to West Xinglong Street. On the south side of West Xinglong Street is Caochang Community.
According to Jingshi fangxiang zhigao
(a book about the layout of Beijing) written by Zhu Yixin (1846–1894), “There is an ancient waterway called Sanlihe to the east of Qianmen.”
The hutong running north-south in Caochang are related to Sanlihe. In 1437, the Sanlihe waterway around Qianmen was excavated to serve as a spillway for a moat. In the late Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) period, as the city’s population began to grow, Sanlihe was filled in to allow the construction of dwellings, and so a cluster of northsouth hutong gradually formed.
The names of old Beijing’s hutong are all unique, and on hearing these names, it is possible to judge their origins. Most of the city’s hutong were named after their original role, a local landmark or a famous resident, and Caochang is no exception. During the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368), Dadu (Beijing) City was surrounded by mud walls that needed to be covered with reed mats during the flooding season. South of Caochang, a hutong called Lucaoyuan (“Reed Grass Garden”) was where reeds would be piled up. During the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), Lucaoyuan was home to wild reeds as well as many workshops specialising in weaving reed mats and shoes. Therefore, gradually hutong to the north of Lucaoyuan acquired the name Caochang (“Grass Factory”).
According to Jingshi fangxiang zhigao, “Many guild halls, including Gui’de, Guangzhou, Xingguo, Macheng and Jinbo were gathered in Caochang Toutiao (Alley No. 1).” Several other hutong in Caochang also contained guild halls and hometown associations during the Qing Dynasty.
During the early-qing Dynasty, only Manchu, nobles and high officials were authorised to live inside Beijing’s inner city (roughly equal to the area within the Second Ring Road today). The government’s offices, as well as six ministries, were located inside Qianmen Gate and many guild halls developed outside because of the large number of businesses and people from other provinces who gathered there in search of opportunities. However, Emperor Kangxi (reign: 1661–1722) issued an imperial edict forbidding the opening of theatres, restaurants and teahouses within the inner city during his reign. As a result, these businesses also began to gather outside the Qianmen area, where a combination of business and civil cultures sprung up.
Caochang, with its long history, is a microcosm of Beijing’s hutong and traditional culture. In 2009, a cluster of traditional residential areas from Caochang Santiao (Alley No. 3) in the west to Caochang Shitiao (Alley No. 10) in the east and from West Xinglong Street in the north to Xuejiawan Hutong in the south became one of Beijing’s 25 historical and cultural protected areas due to its existing north-south hutong. Nowadays, the Caochang area contains 17 hutong, with a total length of 3,500 metres (m), all of which are well-worth exploring.
New Appearances for Old Hutong
Since March 2017, Beijing has renovated 17 hutong, covering an area of 14 hectares in Caochang, according to the architectural style from the late-qing to the 1940s, featuring grey bricks and tiles. At present, renovation of the north side of Caochang has been completed and its south side is nearing completion. The new appearance of Caochang is one of the accomplishments of Dongcheng District in its plan to restore old urban areas.
Upgrading Infrastructure “Restoring the city’s historical and cultural protected areas is a systematic endeavour,” mentioned Li Jun, general manager of Beijing Tianjie Group Co., Ltd., the main contractor responsible for restoring the old urban areas east of Qianmen. According to Li, the first step is upgrading the infrastructure, including: overhead power and
telecommunication lines that need to be buried underground, raisingthe capacity of residential electricity, rainwater and sewage that needs to be discharged separately and the paving of roads.
One resident explained: “The roads in Caochang Qitiao, Batiao and Jiutiao (Alley Nos. 7, 8 and 9) are paved with old style stone bricks, in the traditional Beijing style, but the roads in Caochang Sitiao, Wutiao and Liutiao (Alley Nos.
4, 5 and 6) are paved with modern stone bricks, which are better suited for the elderly.” After canvassing the residents for their opinions, the roads in Caochang’s hutong were paved with different materials, in keeping with the surrounding landscapes and buildings.
According to residents in Caochang, their former kitchens, which used natural gas, have been upgraded to allelectric kitchens. They said: “Our new kitchens are cleaner, safer and more energy efficient.” The average width of the hutong in Caochang is between 1.5 and 4.5 m. Zhuang Quanfang, an official from the Qianmen Sub- District Office explained: “Ten years ago, more than 500 households began to replace their coal-powered heaters with electric heating and the remaining 500 households completed the switch to electricity by 2015 because of the narrow hutong.”
Hidden dangers related to natural gas pipelines appeared many years ago in Caochang because of problems such as corrosion caused by acid-alkaline soils and ground subsidence. In order to ensure the residents’ safety and promote historical and cultural protection in Caochang, the People’s Government of Dongcheng District began a “natural gas-to-electricity” conversion project, including supplying residents with fully electric-powered kitchen equipment, making it the city’s first residential area with all-electric kitchens. In Caochang, after a household applies, professional personnel will install the electric powered equipment and also provide maintenance—residents will receive subsidies covering the conversion project and do not need to bear the cost of renovating kitchens. Apart from all-electric kitchens, Caochang will fulfill smart electricity management and develop the city’s first demonstration zone for replacing coal, natural gas and gasoline with electricity.
Many residents were concerned that their kitchen utensils could no longer be used after the conversion. However, according to professionals, the all-electric kitchens use an electromagnetic stove and so pots containing iron elements such as iron woks, cast iron pots and stainless steel pots, can continue to be used, but copper and aluminum pots cannot. In addition, after comparative tests, the cost of using electricity was found to be half that of using natural gas, thereby saving the residents money.
Beautifying the Environment
The environmental improvements in Caochang are noticeable, with cleanliness and tidiness being the first thing anyone notices when they visit the community. Public spaces have been decked out with wooden benches allowing residents to sit by the main
gates of their courtyards to chat with each other, get some sunshine in winter and enjoy the cool shade beneath the trellises in summer. A woman pointing at a lamppost beside her gate says with a smile, “Have a look at this lamppost. Isn’t it interesting?” During the renovation, the contractor used old timber to produce lampposts in a traditional style, which have become a symbol of the restoration of Caochang.
Improving and restoring Caochang includes developing more than 100 green spaces and garden landscapes, enabling the area to remain green all throughout the year. Bamboos and boxwoods are planted in sunny spots: pomegranates; cloves and magnolias have been planted to meet the residents’ needs; and trellises have been erected to help encourage grape vines.
The restored Huizhou, Xiaogan and Nan’an guild halls and Ancestral Temple of the Qian Family add more historical and cultural elements to Caochang. On closer inspection, it’s possible to notice detailed designs spread across the hutong. Air conditioners once attached to the walls have now been removed and installed low down by the ground, with grey covers over them and potted plants on top.
Houses with long staircases have had handrails fitted to help elderly residents; and windows have had burglar-proof frames with traditional lattices installed. Plant “pots” have also been placed at intervals along the base of the walls. These “pots” are special because inside the light-yellow door on their green bases are disposable gloves and tissue paper provided by the property management company for residents to use in cleaning up after their pets.
“Ding…dong…” Here comes a blue garbage truck from the entrance of a hutong. Zhuang Quanfang explained: “This is a dedicated truck for collecting separated garbage that comes at fixed times every day in Caochang.” According to Zhuang, Caochang’s property management services, including cleaning public areas, security patrol and gardening, are also paid for by the government. Introducing New Businesses Renovating courtyards and introducing business are major works in the restoration and upgrading of Caochang. A newly-opened kitchen is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., providing a variety of traditional Chinese pastries, noodles, steamed bread and pancakes. It also provides breakfast, including steamed buns with meat or vegetable stuffing, tofu and soy milk. In the centre of Caochang is a newly renovated branch of Silian Hairdressing, a China TimeHonoured Brand, whose headquarters is located on Wangfujing Street, the most famous business street in Beijing. Nowadays, residents in Caochang can enjoy high- quality customer-friendly services at a low cost provided by Silian Hairdressing. Wet cut and blow-drying only cost 15 yuan, and the branch also provides perming and hot oil treatments. Such convenient facilities abound in Caochang, benefiting the daily lives of its residents. Green grocers provide a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, and elderly residents can enjoy leisure and recreational activities and communicate with each other at elderly care centres. The property management company also provides shuttle services for the elderly and disabled from their homes to the facilities. In addition, the community has set up a small fire station to provide 24/7 services.
In Caochang, the residents of 83 courtyards have been relocated and provided with compensation. Tianjie Group has cooperated with the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group to develop a hotel in the area, with
39 of the courtyards being used as guestrooms and the others serving as conference rooms and restaurants. Walking into one of demonstration courtyards, one’s eyes are drawn to the comfortable living space with simple and modern design. The business will attract increasing people to experience old Beijing hutong culture.
During the restoration and improvement of Caochang, one major work that is of vital interest to its residents is the upgrading of the area’s public toilets. Caochang’s public toilets have long been a source of criticism from the public. The community has a total of 29 public toilets covering an area of about 620 square metres ( sq. m). Apart from 12 combined male and female public toilets, the rest are either individual male or female toilets, each of which covers less than 20 sq. m due to limited space in the hutong. The
Tianjie Group began a pilot project renovating eight toilets with different conditions in West Damochang Hutong and Caochang Qitiao, Batiao and Jiutiao (Alley Nos. 7, 8 and 9), respectively. The toilets have been upgraded, providing a new look and comfortable facilities. Each has been equipped with partitions to provide privacy. In addition, other facilities such as a primary air system, odourremoval system, insect- control device, sinks and a heating system have been installed in each toilet. The environment of the toilets in Caochang is therefore much cleaner more comfortable than before.
When visiting Caochang, one may wonder why there doesn’t seem to be any bicycles or e-bikes. The reason is that Caochang has banned them from the hutong to improve traffic safety. Residents’ non-motorised vehicles can however be placed in nearby parking lots. Zhuang Quanfang explained: “In Qianmen, there are one large and three small parking lots, which are now open to Caochang’s residents for parking their non-motorised vehicles.” In one lot in the south of Caochang, you’ll find charging posts, each of which can simultaneously recharge six e-bikes. Establishing Relations with Residents
Renovating Caochang has not been smooth sailing. “During the renovation, there have been a variety of problems and difficulties. Residents have their own needs. So, what we want to do is solve the practical problems for them,” Zhuang Quanfang explained. “The renovations inevitably cause inconveniences to the residents’ daily lives and impact some people. We hope we can work together with them to build a better home. The community’s living environment and residents’ quality of life have been improved through the renovation. We’ll continue to implement the renovation. For example, Qianmen Kindergarten, developed along the basis of Jiutiao Primary School, has still not met the needs of the community, so we’ll develop more educational resources. Moreover, renovation inside the residents’ courtyards will also be carried out.” As Zhuang was talking about the renovations with a journalist in a hutong, a nearby resident greeted him: “How are you? You’re back again? Everything is doing good.” Zhuang smiled and began to chat with the resident.
After his chat, Zhuang Quanfang continued: “If the residents are not satisfied with the government’s new policies, we’ll not be anxious for success and will need to discuss their opinions with them. It is a difficult process for us. We need to understand the residents’ needs and interpret the policies based on the actual situation.” Zhuang has worked in Qianmen Sub-district Office since 2000. He has not only witnessed the renovations and improvements to Caochang over the years but also established good relations with the residents. “We need to consider a variety of issues from the standpoints of the residents, helping them understand the benefits. That way they can gradually understand and accept our ideas.” Zhuang’s remarks underlined the ceaseless efforts made by him and his team members.
The historical and cultural elements in Caochang have been restored and the well- being of its residents have also been improved. Caochang showcases a new vitality as more than 960 households in 497 courtyards have been encouraged to participate in the renovation, allowing them to begin to consider themselves owners of the community.
There is an activity centre situated in the south of Caochang Shitiao (Alley No. 10). Inside one of the centre’s rooms, some elderly residents are sitting at a long table discussing an issue occasionally taking notes. The activity centre also serves as the Council Room of the Caochang Community. According to Jiao, a 66-year-old woman who lives in Caochang Jiutiao (Alley No. 9), they talked about the drying of quilts and wet clothes. She proudly said: “I’m a head of Caochang Jiutiao and participate in the meeting on behalf of its residents. We’re very happy because we’ve obtained funding for that issue and are discussing how to divide the work.”
According to Feng Jie, secretary of the Caochang Community Committee
of the Communist Party of China, the Council Room of Caochang was established in 2014 with the aim of advocating the idea of “Caochang Community is Our Home and its Development Depends on Every Resident,” encouraging public participation, giving its residents guidance and support, mobilising entities in the community to create a favourable atmosphere of consultation and cooperation for the community governance, and promoting the development of a harmonious and civilised community.
Feng explained: “There are 29 heads of the hutong in Caochang and each hutong has one or two team leaders. We organise a regular meeting twice a month usually held on a Thursday afternoon. We also hold unscheduled meetings if there are major events. Every matter, big or small, needs to be discussed and determined by the members of the community. If a project obtains financial support, we also need to collect the opinions of the residents by brainstorming and holding meetings to discuss how exactly to implement them.”
With a declining population, there are now fewer than 10,000 residents from 3,000 families in an area covering 1.09 sq.m. The former west and east Caochang communities were merged into a united community and the members of the two community standing committees still serve the new one. The new community advocates public participation and encourages residents to work together to build a better home.
Sun Zhenxi, who has lived in Caochang for 78 years, is a member of the Council Room. “Many good ideas such as which type of stone should be used in the pavement or how to improve the public toilets in the hutong grew out of discussions between members of the Council Room,” Sun said. “Deciding how to renovate the hutong should be decided by the residents and many designs were discussed and approved by the Council Room.”
The notion of “one family” is rooted in Caochang and a new life has begun in its hutong. The community also established a convention of residents and developed self-disciplining organisations, including associations for pigeon, grape vines and dog owners, to encourage public participation in community management. The Association for Grape Vine Owners serves as an organiser or manager to regulate grape vine and wistaria growers from 17 families by making unified trellises to beautify the hutong environment. Dog owners from 144 families set up the Self-discipline Association for Dog Owners in Caochang which has played a major role in managing dogs since the renovations began. The owners now keep their canines leashed and clean up after them when they take them for a walk.
In recent years, many cultural activities, including “Shows for Elderly Residents,” “Shows for Summer,” “Maternal Love Like Water— Celebrating Mother’s Day,” “Paternal Love Like a Mountain—celebrating Father’s Day,” “Hand in Hand, Heart to Heart—diy—making Cakes,” “Keeping Fit by Brisk Walking in the Hutong” and “Safety Island—building a Peaceful Community,” have been held to enhance the happiness of the residents, encourage public participation and strengthen their sense of ownership of the community. “We held a neighbourhood festival to celebrate xiaonian (the 23rd day of the 12th lunar month, considered a day for cleaning before the Spring Festival week), which was delightful. We appreciate the huge support from the sub- district office,” Jiao related with a smile. “When I see green plants along the hutong, my mood is good and I feel like I live in a garden. I’m very satisfied with the environment after the renovation and I think I have a happy life here.” Feng Jie said: “After the government invested to upgrade Caochang’s infrastructure, residents should also implement civic enhancement to promote public participation in governance of the community.” Rational and healthy development in Caochang improves the cohesiveness of the residents and encourages them to build a harmonious and civilised community.
A couplet written on the red gate of a courtyard in Caochang Qitiao (Alley No. 7) reads: “Guo'en jiaqing, Renrou nianfeng,” which means “cheering for benevolence from our country and enjoying longevity and harvest.” The renovations have not only enabled Caochang Community to become more harmonious and liveable, they have also highlighted the traditional Beijing culture around Qianmen.
A green landscape in Sanlihe, Xicheng District
The air conditioner units have been installed outdoors and decorated with potted flowers in Caochang Hutong.
A bookstore on Changxiang Toutiao Hutong
A tea bar among hutong