Bei­jing’s Hu­tongs: City In­side a City

China Pictorial (English) - - Contents - Text by He­lena Vil­lar Se­gura

An old man parks his bi­cy­cle at a cor­ner to buy a pack of cig­a­rettes. While light­ing a cig­a­rette, he takes out his phone and scans the QR code of the road­side shop to pay be­fore leav­ing.

A young, en­er­getic de­liv­ery driver with a phone in hand screeches to a halt to avoid bar­rel­ing into a group of gig­gling uni­formed school­girls eat­ing fruit.

Half­way down the street, a smil­ing woman un­der a huge red um­brella sells let­tuce, car­rots, onions, toma­toes, pota­toes and many other veg­eta­bles I couldn’t iden­tify as well as lo­cal yo­gurt, wa­ter, ice cream, or­anges, blue­ber­ries, co­conuts, ba­nanas and duri­ans. I con­sider a fu­ture pur­chase. I love duri­ans.

On the left I spot a cozy-look­ing shop. An el­e­gant lady in white opens the glass door ring­ing a bell. In­side the shop ev­ery- thing is white too. The walls, ta­ble, chair, com­puter… even a cat! An iron, a frame, some note­books, pens, clothes—all white— are all for sale. The only ex­cep­tions I can find are green cacti. I con­sider another fu­ture pur­chase.

Out­side the shop, a lit­tle girl in split pants runs awk­wardly while wav­ing a spoon, as her grand­mother fol­lows her zigzag­ging steps. When the kid looks back laugh­ing, she runs into a row of shared bi­cy­cles. “Don’t cry,” I say. She does any­way, but quickly for­gets about the pain when she sees ten for­eign­ers car­ry­ing lug­gage down the al­ley.

A flash from their cam­eras cap­tures a group of lo­cals chat­ting and en­joy­ing the blue sky. One neigh­bor­hood res­i­dent is go­ing home. She turns around and en­ters her house with a baby. Some el­derly peo­ple sit­ting nearby at the en­trance of a court­yard youth hos­tel talk, eat­ing noo­dles and play­ing Chi­nese chess in Bei­jing’s labyrinthine hu­tong (al­ley) area.

The first time I came to the cap­i­tal of China, I had no plans to ever re­turn. The world is such a big place that you nor­mally don’t think of vis­it­ing such a far­away city twice. This me­trop­o­lis in north­ern China was a sur­prise: cos­mopoli­tan, old and new, dot­ted with his­tor­i­cal build­ings, dance clubs on rooftops and peo­ple prac­tic­ing Tai Chi. I wan­dered around the in­ter­est­ing city, climbed the Great Wall on its green­est days and let the mag­nif­i­cence of the For­bid­den City con­sume me. I boated at the Sum­mer Palace, took pic­tures of the Tem­ple of Heaven and rode the metro to Yonghe­gong Lama Tem­ple. I saw prayer flags in down­town Bei­jing. Tour guides ex­plained even more about the splen­did cul­ture.

Five min­utes from many mod­ern

metro sta­tions in down­town ar­eas are neigh­bor­hoods of nar­row al­leys, which not only re­main home for peo­ple from Bei­jing who have been liv­ing there for gen­er­a­tions, but also wel­come new res­i­dents in­clud­ing for­eign­ers, fancy restau­rants, tra­di­tional tea shops, pub­lic re­strooms, dumpling ven­dors and bars. Chaos ex­ists along­side the cozy life.

A hu­tong area is a city in­side a city—a com­mu­nity se­cluded from the rest of the cap­i­tal but lo­cated right in the cen­ter of it. I fell in love with such al­leys. They are the re­sult­ing streets serv­ing ad­ja­cent lines of court­yard res­i­dences, one af­ter another, like a maze. They were first built dur­ing the Yuan Dy­nasty (1271-1368), and many more emerged in the sub­se­quent Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dy­nas­ties. “Hu­tong,” in fact, is a Mon­go­lian word that means wa­ter-well, since most of those ar­eas were de­signed around a well where lo­cals could get wa­ter for daily ac­tiv­i­ties. When the For­bid­den City was built in the early 15th Cen­tury, it was al­ready sur­rounded by lanes of court­yards, di­vided by so­cial class. High-rank­ing of­fi­cials and pow­er­ful mer­chants gen­er­ally owned the largest court­yards. The fur­thest court­yards from the city cen­ter were smaller and more mod­est and be­longed to ar­ti­sans, work­ers and mer­chants. Some of the twisted lanes re­main in the city to­day, and I dis­cov­ered them on my very first trip to China.

Now, nearly five years later, I live in Bei­jing. Ev­ery time some­one vis­its me, I take my guest to ev­ery well-known spot I can find. But when I am alone, I just stroll through the most au­then­tic lanes of the city. A feel­ing of calm lingers. Some­how time slows down in those neigh­bor­hoods. Some days I eat food from Sin­ga­pore, and other days I en­joy Yun­nan cui­sine served in a yard. If a good friend vis­its, we may have a leg of lamb cooked over burn­ing coal and eat it on the street, or take a walk at night when ev­ery­thing is closed. Most of the time, I spend my af­ter­noons in a Ti­betan-style restau­rant or a cof­fee shop that plays Span­ish gui­tar mu­sic, where I read or study. Out­side the win­dow grand­mas, chil­dren, clean­ing carts and res­i­dents stroll around. Beau­ti­ful sun­sets glow when the weather is good. I en­joy all of them. In a few years, per­haps I won’t be here. I al­ready pre­dict miss­ing it, and all it will be is some pic­tures and my fad­ing mem­ory of it. That’s why I keep my cam­era at hand at all times and a note­book and pen close by.

On Septem­ber 25, 2017, an old man takes tourists sight­see­ing in Bei­jing's hu­tongs. IC

On Septem­ber 25, 2017, a man brushes Chi­nese cal­lig­ra­phy in a hu­tong in Bei­jing. IC Hu­tongs feel like a whole other city. By en­ter­ing this lit­tle cof­fee shop, you travel di­rectly to Ti­bet. That's the unique thing about Hu­tongs: They can take you...

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