Our Beautiful Hutong Homes
The Chaoyangmen Sub-district's concept of “Design for the People” has now been upgraded to “Version 4.0.” Beijing Design Week in
hutong is no longer focused on the “avant-garde,” but on issues closely related to the people's daily needs for culture and art.
In Courtyard No. 27 on Neiwubu Jie, visitors can enjoy natural, sweet tea from Southwest China; the classic drumbeat performance called “jingyun dagu” in which stories are told in the Beijing dialect with a drum accompaniment; stand-up shows to help release the pressure of work; or watch a movie outdoors to relive the good old days. The most touching things when living in hutong (traditional alleys) are hearing stories from neighbours, seeing the inherited old culture such as dough figurine making, listening to the beautiful melodies of oboes and enjoying family time watching shadow plays together. As such, it is possible to be a visitor, participant or even protagonist in Courtyard No. 27.
As a venue for Beijing Design Week and as part of the Dongsi South Historical and Cultural Block, Chaoyangmen Sub- district is home to several old communities that have changed a lot over the past four years. Since the beginning of 2015, the Chaoyangmen Sub- district's concept of “Design for the People” has now been upgraded to “Version 4.0.” Beijing Design Week in the hutong is no longer focused on the “avant- garde,” but on issues closely related to the people's daily needs for culture and art in aspects including food, clothing, accommodation, transportation, culture and entertainment.
Walking into the Dongsi South area where many large and small hutong intersect, it is possible to feel that this is a cultural area which is very much still alive. As one passes through the wooden gate of Courtyard No. 24 in Shijia Hutong, two open yards reveal themselves. This is Shijia Hutong Museum, once the residence of Ling Shuhua (1900–1990), one of the “three talented women” during the Republic of China Period (1912– 1949). Today, with the joint efforts of the Chaoyangmen Sub- district Office and the Prince's Charities Foundation China, this former home of a renowned writer has been transformed into a hutong museum. It attracts those fascinated by the culture of old Beijing; reminds the local residents of the area's culture; and offers tourists an intimate, 40-squaremetre (sq.m) space to relax. Here there is plenty of nostalgia to be found as well as cultural and creative products featuring hutong. People can also drink tea, read and entertain themselves here, making it a paradise for the community's residents to chat and unwind.
Strolling through the hutong, one can easily find all kinds of beautiful things: well-built staircases, handsome brick walls, blooming flowers, elaborate textures and comfortable wooden benches. The “Micro- Gardens in Hutong” model is creating a new aesthetic of hutong life. Designs filled with culture, art and aesthetics taken from our daily lives shine brilliantly during Beijing Design Week and put the concept of “Design for the People” into practice. Li Zhe, deputy director of the Chaoyangmen Sub- district Office, said: “Beijing Design Week only lasts for two weeks and has evolved into a kind of ‘carnival' where the public join in just for the fun of it. However, our design cycle begins when the last event finishes and runs throughout the whole year. We integrate design into people's lives and develop interesting and practical design projects. Then, we incubate these projects and show the results during Design Week to serve the people in these communities.”
The ‘Design for the People’ Concept
Chaoyangmen District is located in the prosperous centre of Beijing and is also a model reflecting the landscape of the old city, which can be found within easy walking distance. Residents' demands for the basics can be easily met here. Locals can buy fresh food on the way home from work, dine out on the weekends, take their children to school in the morning, interact with neighbours, stroll to nearby parks, or see a doctor in a community clinic.
Such kind of community living is in fact normal for old neighbourhoods. Perhaps people there do not need to deliberately create, but rather to understand, cherish and retain the community life that belongs to all the residents and to their “home.”
As the host of the Beijing Design Week—chaoyangmen, the Chaoyangmen Sub- district Office joined hands with Beijing Design Week for the fourth time to continue promoting its concept of “Design for the People” in 2018. Under the theme of “Community Life,” designers, academics, residents, government staff and others all took part in the parallel session.
Activities at the Beijing Design Week—chaoyangmen were divided into four sections: “In-situ Renovation,” “Protection and Renewal,” “Cultural Ecology” and “Open to the Public.” Upholding the original concept of “people- centric, daily design,” the parallel session exhibited the day-to- day results and experiences providing services to the public. These covered such areas as historical landscape protection, city planning surveys of the old city, improvements to public facilities, exploration of public culture and the development of an artistic community. They were displayed in various forms such as daily work exhibitions, interactive exhibitions, forums and salons.
According to Li Zhe, there were 57 projects in the four sections. These included highlights such as: “Our Block: 2018 Dongcheng District Urban Public Sphere Construction Exhibition;” “Chaoyangmen Talk” forum embodying thoughts on five-year cultural construction in the Chaoyangmen area and the “Chaoyangmen: 2012–2018 Cultural Construction Practice Achievements Exhibition;” “Dongsi South Historical and Cultural Essence Governance Innovation Platform” exhibition focusing on cultural innovation services in the Chaoyangmen area; “Micro Gardens in Hutong” project which focuses on the natural ecology of hutong; a series of activities held by the Shijia Hutong Museum showing the cultural community of Chaoyangmen; a series of events by the Shijia Hutong Art Workshop; and the Chaoyangmen Community Cultural and Lifestyle House at No. 27 Neiwubu Jie. In contrast with previous events, this year emphasised the participation of residents, for example via a string of activities which welcomed locals. These activities included “Welcome to My Home—open Day” for community families, which has been held for three consecutive years and highlights public participation; the “Neiwu Neighbourhood Festival” related to home construction; and the “Yanyue Community—residents' Committees in the New Era” displaying the innovative work of residents' committees.
In addition, some themed activities were held for young people during Beijing Design Week—chaoyangmen. They included the first opening of No. 81 Chaonei (Chaonei Church) to the public, as well as the original “Mid-autumn Garden Party” and “Beiping Party.” Many exhibitions and activities related to the city, its planning, design and lifestyles were also staged by the Beijing Municipal Institute of City Planning & Design, Beijing University of Technology and other institutions, allowing visitors to have a full experience of “home.”
One resident explained: “Chaoyangmen's participation in the Beijing Design Week over the past four years has been like opening a door to welcome friends from around the world to visit the area, and also promote residents' aesthetic appreciation. The most important thing is that it shows Chaoyangmen's achievements and ways of life to others, which makes our old residents proud, and love our home even more. Now every resident loves to say that they're from Chaoyangmen!”
The Chaoyangmen Sub- district Office has stayed true to its tenet of “Design for the People.” Through five years of effort, remarkable achievements have been made in culture, people's livelihoods, social construction, provisions for the aged, environmental improvement and other aspects, and the satisfaction and happiness of residents has increased day by day. The Dongsi South Historical and Cultural Block was awarded the China Human Settlements and Environment Award by the Ministry of Housing and Urban-rural Development at the end of 2017 and has gradually achieved its vision of creating a harmonious and liveable life.
A Prototype for Community Building
Niu Ruixue is one of the founders of the Chaoyangmen Community Cultural and Lifestyle House in Courtyard No. 27 and a key planner of the Beijing Design Week—chaoyangmen. Several years ago, she returned to Beijing after studying in France where she earned
degrees in drama, creative industry and cultural communication. She worked as a writer for CCTV'S popular gameshow “Feichang 6+1,” founded the Beijing One Arts Festival and dreamed of becoming a culture reporter. However, she never imagined that she would set foot in a hutong courtyard in 2016 and has since become a provider of authentic community culture services.
In 2014, Niu participated in Beijing Design Week for the first time and the activities she and her team organised were a big hit with local people. At the time, researchers from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences told her that her activities demonstrated a pattern of community governance. But, having just returned from abroad, she only knew “public art” rather than “community governance.”
In Niu's opinion, public art awakens people's feelings and helps them recognise their culture. It was for that reason that all the activities she planned were interactive and participatory. In one activity, a female artist chatted with residents and passers-by next to a community notice board and then took pictures of each person's navel. Finally, she pasted these photos on the notice board to form a vast “starry sky” which astonished residents. Artists from France and Guizhou were also invited to perform shadow plays in shop windows down narrow hutong, with a band playing along outside. A total of 66 projects were planned and carried out over two weeks in 2014.
Among these projects, the “Reading Poems under Street Lamps” event was particularly popular with locals and many identified emotionally with it. As such, it provided a basis for cooperation between Niu and the Chaoyangmen Sub-district Office.
Niu Ruixue recalled: “It was getting dark and the street lamps were coming on. Around a dozen of us began reading poems under the lamps. Gradually, more passers-by stopped and listened to us, including a grandmother and her granddaughter who'd just finished school, some residents who'd left work and some migrant workers.” Smiling, she continued: “The young girl took out her schoolbook and read the poem ‘Ode to the Goose' loudly. Her grandmother seemed touched and also recited a poem. An office worker stopped and said that he felt frustrated after he'd been criticised by his boss. He thought what we were doing looked interesting and so he read a poem, then left in good spirits. There were around two dozen migrant workers nearby, all listening quietly. One who looked like a leader stood up and started smoking, all the time keeping his eyes on those reciting poetry. Suddenly he put out his cigarette, walked under the street lamp as if he was making a big decision and recited a poem. Although it wasn't possible to tell what he was saying exactly because of his strong accent, everyone listened in silence and people were deeply impressed by his seriousness and emotion. A female artist there shed a few tears—maybe because she understood the man's grief. From then on, those migrant workers have often taken part in the activity.”
In 2015 when Beijing Design Week opened at the China Millennium Monument, the “Reading Poems under Street Lamps” activity was fully underway in Qinglong Hutong. Niu's team went on to win a prize that year, as did the Chaoyangmen Sub- district Office. At the awards ceremony, Niu Ruixue met Li Zhe for the first time, and Li explained the Sub- district Office's theme of “Design for the People.” After hearing about the theme, Niu thought that this was a excellent idea that really aligned with her own thinking. By putting forward such a people- centric concept, it showed that the government was forward-looking and made the likelihood of success that much greater.
Meanwhile, Li Zhe also paid close attention to Niu Ruixue at the awards ceremony. He recalled that he also appreciated Niu's speech on creating a new type of community culture, cultivating public awareness and reviving old neighbourhood ties. At Li's invitation, Niu Ruixue then agreed to start a business in Courtyard No. 27 on Neiwubu Jie.
Li explained to Niu that the Chaoyangmen Sub- district was pursuing two undertakings: community building and traditional environmental protection. However, it was difficult to embark on community building as they were unsure how to proceed. He told Niu that her planning skills showed a touch of community building. On the eve of the xiaonian ( lit. “little new year,” marking the prelude to Spring Festival), Li proposed holding a New Year activity. At that time, the exhibition workers and artists had all gone home to prepare for the holiday, so it was
hard to get the activity underway. Niu got many old items and artefacts from an old collector Li introduced to her, planned and arranged the exhibition “Open Up the Memories of Old Beijing” on her own. The exhibition displayed objects from the 1950s, 60s and 70s in Beijing, and included DIY activities such as blowing sugar figures, writing couplets and playing sanxian (a threestringed plucked instrument), together with some old Beijing craftsmen. The wonderful event was extended from a week to more than a month and allowed the residents to enjoy a meaningful exhibition. Niu also confirmed the strong desire of hutong residents for cultural activities through this event.
Thereafter, Li applied for operation of an area of over 700 sq.m in Courtyard No. 27 and granted it solemnly to Niu who transformed it into a cultural lifestyle hall. At present, 80 percent of Niu's team have master's degrees and 60 percent of them have studied abroad. These highend talents jointly chose Courtyard No. 27 and social responsibility.
After taking over Courtyard No. 27, Niu has planned 10 themes for its 10 spaces to allow people to visit at different times. She has also designed a one-year action plan consisting of regular and temporary activities. Unlike traditional community cultural stations, Courtyard No. 27 is an activity space integrating art, culture, sport and lifestyle. Its themes include reading, exercise, creation, taste, play and flowers. These are served by a reading room, fitness area, traditional cultural workshop, snack area, children's space and women's area. This traditional courtyard is now more international. It has transformed the old pattern of people entertaining themselves and the same people attending, changed low venue utilisation, and improved the cultural standards of residents.
Throughout summer 2016, Niu and her team planned activities for Beijing Design Week with the support of the Chaoyangmen Sub- district Office. She closely identified with the theme and so updated it to “Design for the People 2.0— Community Building.” This idea was affirmed by the secretary of the CPC in the Chaoyangmen Sub- district Office Committee's, convincing Niu that grassroots government was democratic and determined to serve the people.
Niu went on a special fact-finding mission to Shanghai with an aim to improve community buildings. There she discovered something very interesting: rich sub- districts tend to do well in providing community cultural services because they enjoy more government funding, whereas poorer sub- districts are willing but lack funds. She thought that public culture requires a balance of resources so that everyone can enjoy the same services. At that time, the State began encouraging organisations or individuals into the government service system and third-party institutions gained a certain viability.
Niu Ruixue's idea was supported by the Chaoyangmen Sub-district Office, which allowed Courtyard No. 27 to run at a small profit. Since then, the Courtyard is required to serve the three communities under the Chaoyangmen Sub-district Office but also has become an experimental base for promoting public culture. Today, 75 percent of Courtyard No. 27's programmes are offered for free and 25 percent have a change. Any fees are returned to local residents to help improve services and the quality of activities. After this idea became reality, many subdistricts and communities across the country have visited to investigate and learn more. Courtyard No. 27 has become a blueprint for “community building” and has started to introduce the experience across the whole country.
Reviving Old Streets with Shared Culture
Situated in the same lanes and under the same azure sky, the Dongsi South Historical and Cultural Block (DSHCB) cherishes the same memories as the bricks and tiles of its old dwellings. Over the years, the Chaoyangmen Sub- district governing DSHCB has been tirelessly working towards cultural rejuvenation and community cultivation. It has formed its own characteristics and paved a systematic development path by formulating the DSHCB Protection Plan in 2012, setting up the Shijia Hutong Museum in 2013, establishing the Shijia Hutong Appearance Protection Association in 2014, hosting Beijing Design Week events in 2015, creating the Chaoyangmen Cultural Lifestyle Hall at Courtyard No. 27 in 2016 and founding the Shijia Hutong Cultural and Creative Products Store in 2017. The sub- district also established strategic alliances with the Beijing Municipal Institute of City Planning & Design (BICP) and Beijing University of Technology to form a fledgling Chaoyangmen cultural organisation and community. A community of shared culture was also the main theme of “Design for the People 3.0” at the 2017 Beijing Design Week— Chaoyangmen.
Shijia Hutong Museum, Beijing's first community-based museum based around hutong culture, was opened to the public on October 18, 2013, marking the beginning of cultural rejuvenation in Chaoyangmen. The hutong- themed museum consists of an exhibition room, reception room and discussion room. It is continuing its century-long hosting of cultural personages with salons, themed exhibitions and community discussions, and is building its reputation at home and abroad.
According to deputy director Li Zhe, exhibitions are not enough for a community museum—the important thing is public participation. For that reason, cultural salons and hutong tea parties are often held in the courtyard to discuss how to develop the sub- district.
The Shijia Hutong Appearance Protection Association was established on September 24, 2014, with the help of the Chaoyangmen Sub- district to build mutual understanding and carry out block preservation and renovation. The bottom-up social organisation brings residents, property owners, government workers and social forces together onto a shared platform to jointly protect the area's historical and cultural heritage.
Founded in 2017, the Shijia Hutong Cultural Creative Products Store neighbouring the museum, has relied on the area's hutong culture and quality historical resources to design and develop a series of popular cultural and creative products. The store has taken root in the community and recruited artisans, calligraphers and artists. In 2017, it signed agreements with 15 community
artists to transform or recreate their calligraphy, paintings, handiwork and photography into over 30 works themed around Party building, clean governance, hutong culture, care for the elderly and the local museum. This work was widely recognised by residents throughout the sub- district and community.
Beijing's hutong contain the traditions and customs of the local people, and are livelier than other cultural items such as paintings. The old Lishi Teaching Hall building at No. 127 Lishi Hutong impresses passers-by with its grey bricks and tiles, wood-panel doors, timber floors, white walls and colourful benches. The 40-sq.m hall is bright, warm and full of culture with its “Hutong Gallery,” “Chongru Study” and “Herb Garden.” Permanent exhibitions are held in the gallery showcasing the works of hutong residents and community artists.
Courtyard No. 27 has been interacting with the community and has gradually become a focal point for locals who like to go for a stroll, drink tea, write, paint, read, or take part in some activities. On the eve of last year's Beijing Design Week, Courtyard No. 27 housed more cultural institutions and went from being an event venue to a platform for pooling social resources and exhibiting public culture. Niu Ruixue explained: “Chaoyangmen Sub- district is a heaven for culture and creation and boasts profound public cultural service genes.”
The deep courtyards and tranquil hutong create a leisurely and pleasant lifestyle for Beijingers, and the Shijia Hutong Appearance Protection Association boosts cultural rejuvenation. The museum, cultural and creative society and teaching hall on Shijia Hutong improve the locals' quality of life, offer new carriers for cultural inheritance and shared memories, and clarify the meaning of “Chaoyangmen Community of Shared Culture.”
“President Xi Jinping proposed building a ‘community of shared destiny' and Chaoyangmen will build a ‘community of shared culture.' Cultural recognition creates cohesion, which is the basis of Party building and one of the core values of socialism,” Li Zhe explained. “Cultural rejuvenation is a step-by-step process rather than something that is accomplished overnight. With the gradual rejuvenation of declining communities, residents will have a greater sense of happiness and achievement, people will trust each other more, and they'll strive for shared objectives based on cultural recognition. These changes have influenced the people in imperceptible ways.”
Exhibitions for the Design Week come straight from the people's daily lives. As the community of shared culture has taken shape, the Design for the People 3.0 at the 2017 Beijing Design Week—chaoyangmen applied this as its theme. Over time, the growing Chaoyangmen community of shared culture continues to incorporate quality social resources into itself.
This year, the “Micro Gardens in Hutong” design and “Life, Aesthetics, Recreation” exhibition, sponsored by the Working Committee and Office of Chaoyangmen Sub- district and organised by the BICP and Hou Xiaolei's team from the Central Academy of Fine Arts, were held in Shijia Hutong. Young artists, designers and residents jointly discussed the renovation of micro gardens, upgrading of urban gardens and how to bring about the concepts of “life, aesthetics, recreation” in the area.
Associate Professor Hou Xiaolei, one of the initiators of these activities, explained: “In Beijing's old blocks, residents often grow plants and vegetables like roses, gourds and grapes using reused pots or abandoned materials to make small gardens. However, these gardens are stylistically inconsistent as they haven't been professionally designed and the owners have a range of different aesthetic and practical preferences. We hope to offer some professional guidance to help them beautify their gardens and highlight the vitality of the plants and the art.”
Li Zhe said: “Professor Hou realises the great opportunity for art in communities and hutong. The combination of art with people's lives will bring about new inspiration. Then, once it takes roots in the hutong, art will have a robust future.” Li went on to explain that a “community of shared culture” means building cultural alliances. Gradually, newcomers to Chaoyangmen will build alliances uniting the industry's upperand lower-stream participants, offering custom services for the locals, including
public cultural services which originate from routine inspiration.
Building Happy Homes for the People
The Design for the People 4.0 theme for the 2018 Beijing Design Week— Chaoyangmen is “Community Circles.” This involves both upgrading the physical form of public cultural services and enhancing people's sense of recognition and belonging.
Li Zhe explained: “We plan to build a ‘home status' because third-party institutions here have developed a sense of belonging to the sub-district. Home is first and foremost a geographical concept. The ‘home status' is not a single home with several people, but a social status within a given scope, like the courtyards we used to live in where neighbours shared common memories. That's why we want to re-introduce the concept of ‘Community Circles.'”
Preparations started to be made for the development of “Community Circles” at the end of last year's Design Week. Li spoke about how the cultural sector developed a systematic plan which is being unrolled over a period of years. As for the pension and elderly service sector, the sub- district proposed a shared community for senior citizens. The shared community not only features care centres and pension stations operated by the sub- district, it also plays a key role in mobilising and connecting social forces.
“Guo'an Community specialises in elderly services, and canteens, banks and hospitals provide convenient services for senior citizens. The shared community connects all these social forces to form alliances. In this way, the elderly can easily find a service station nearby to help meet their basic life services,” Li Zhe said, continuing, “On this basis, there are also professional, targeted services like medical care and emergency treatment. All these combine to create an elderlycentric service environment. To this end, the sub- district has established an elderly service platform, which covers daily care, medical treatment, entertainment, health and other functions, and promotes the platform in an organised way.”
The design of “Community Circles” highlights urban and community lifestyles in all aspects and subtly connects life services. In addition, its coverage has extended beyond Dongsi South and reached other communities in the east of Chaoyangmen Sub- district.
The “Community Circles” concept aims to build not only a geographical home, but a spiritual one for residents in the sub-district. Niu Ruixue explained that she once organised a project called “Hometown in Beijing” extending concern to immigrants who have lived in Beijing for several years through an event called “Night of Guizhou.” Ingredients were prepared at Courtyard No. 27, allowing Guizhou natives living in Beijing to cook for themselves, talk about their life, work and family back home. The project offered them the chance to refresh their memories of their hometown.
In order to narrow the distance between people, Courtyard No. 27 and a cultural organisation jointly launched the “Lonely Granny Live Show.” Two elderly women from different social classes and with different lifestyles in Chaoyangmen Sub- district were the stars of this live show. One of the ladies was from a family of intellectuals and lived a petty bourgeoisie life; the other lived a simple life with her granddaughter in a singlestorey house a little over 10 sq.m in size, but was very optimistic. During the live show, the two grannies chatted about their opinions on culture. This attracted big ratings and convinced sponsors to produce a half-hour short film. Surprisingly, the majority of the audience was born in the 1990s and actually complained that the film was too short.
Inspired by the “Lonely Granny Live Show,” Chaoyangmen Sub-district initiated the “Be Me” campaign during the 2018 Beijing Design Week in a bid to bridge the gap between young and old. Niu explained that such activities were big hits with ordinary people, communities and the government, attracting large audiences as well as receiving active feedback from society. “We call these activities ‘social influence programmes.' Social consensus is pervasive and different groups may reach spiritual consensus through a programme. So, in most cases, we not only organise programmes, but also publicise them widely as well.”
Design for the People 4.0 provides convenience to residents in Chaoyangmen Sub- district. It carves out the right path for improving quality of life and establishes a communication bridge allowing neighbours, people of different social classes and different ages to reach consensus. Preparations are currently underway for next year's “Design for the People 5.0,” which aims to bring new changes to the ancient sub- district when it is rolled out.
Artists speaking at the Chaoyangmen Talk event
Young visitors to Shijia Hutong Museum
Residents displaying their artworks
A cultural fair in hutong
Cultural products in Shijia Hutong Cultural Creative Products Store
Chaoyangmen Cultural and Creative Center
A community-based cultural room for residents