Saturday, May 18, 2019

Beijing Hutongs (Old streets and alleys)

Strolling down the hutong in Beijing brought me back to my time thirty years ago. Tree-lined hutongs lead into alleys with courtyard gardens that have been there for centuries.
To know a fish, go to the water. To know a bird's song, go to the mountains. --Chinese proverb

One of the wonders of the world for many centuries has been the Great Wall, which stretches about 5,500 miles or 8,851 kilometers across China. It was built during the Ming dynasty and took about 200 years to build. Of course, the Great Wall is stupendous, but there are other walls that are a must-see if you go to Beijing: they are the walls of the hutongs. What are hutongs? They are alleys and narrow streets that connect traditional courtyard residences to one another. Within those walls or courtyards, communities and families lived for centuries. You can go down one street and turn into an ally where there are sometimes six or seven doors going into different residences. Going to the hutong area of Beijing is peeking into what urban Chinese life was like for centuries. People lived close together, working, eating, cooking, gossiping, and sharing their lives together. Today is the same.

Recently I was able to return to Beijing, a place I lived in 1989 for about six months. I briefly went back in 2009, but Beijing is always transforming and reinventing itself--with new crevices to explore. The Winter Olympics will come in 2022, and the city is vibrant with constant new construction of high-rise buildings, shopping malls, and businesses. Yet, one aspect of Beijing life has fortunately remained: the hutong neighborhoods. I wish that many of them had not been demolished in favor of modern high rises. But luckily, there are still some left. To me, they are the heart of Beijing--where you can feel the pulse of what a neighborhood feels like and eat all kinds of Chinese street food. You can even go on a hutong tour.

In 1989 riding my bike in the hutongs.
I was surprised once you turn into an ally, you could be in 1989 or even 1889. The May peonies and roses were in full bloom, and you could peek into walled gardens through a Chinese gate or door. Sometimes the area of the hutong has been called the same name for centuries and the family has inhabited it for generations. They have names like "Sheep Market" or "Willow Tree Well" or attributes like "Happy." Sometimes they are named after an emperor's barber or another such name. More than anything, the Beijing hutongs remind you why it is critical to preserve the past in a large, pulsating city. Every city needs a place to return to in their memories.

Here are ten hutong neighborhoods for you to explore in Beijing:

 Nanluoguxiang (South Gong and Drum Lane)
 Skewed Tobacco Pouch Street (Yandai Xiejie)
 Mao'er Hutong 
 Guozijian Street
 Liulichang Cultural Street 
 Jinyu Hutong 
 Dongjiamin Lane 
 Xijiamin Lane
 Ju'er Hutong 
    Badna Hutong 

Thanks, Beijing for taking me back to my own memory bank. When I lived there in 1989, riding around the hutongs on my bike was my favorite thing to do. There was and is always some new street food to try or another glimpse into Chinese life. You might say many of the Chinese walls come down in the hutongs.

Entrance to the Nanluoguxiang hutong, probably the most famous one. It is now a place where there are about 150 stores, shops, and restaurants.

An old garden and residence turned into a restaurant

Walking down the narrow alleys, with the doors going into old courtyards. The hutongs show a close neighborhood where various families have lived in close proximity for centuries.

Peeking into one of the doors that opens into a residence and courtyard. Some of the larger courtyards have been sectioned and divided so that more people can live there.

Another ally to get lost in the hutongs

There is always a leader of the hutong alley--taking care of neighborhood disagreements and problems. Their picture is shown on each ally.

A hutong neighborhood market

An old bike that carries loads on it. I remember my little family in 1989 riding on the back of one of these transport bikes.

2019 hutong

                            Street food and shops in the hutong

A bautze shop, a large dumpling with meat or beans inside. They are very cheap and are traditional northern Chinese food.

So you want a new umbrella?

Cold air keeping the fruit fresh to sell

Eating on the street in the hutongs. Everyone is trying some kind of noodle, dumpling, or rice. There are relatively few desserts because Chinese people are not traditionally as fond of sweets, like Westerners. 

Having said that, here is a candy shop.

Fans for sale...

Combs for sale...

A street vendor selling fried rice on the street in front of the shops.

A Prague and Eastern Europe dessert sold in one shop. It shows how much times have changed since I was here in 1989.
Pictures on the entrance to the hutong of the traditional hutong

Pictures of the courtyards that have now been mostly subdivided into stores, shops, and residences.

                   Pictures from 1989 when we were here in the hutongs (You can see the hutongs brought back many wonderful memories when I was here a few days ago)

Joseph and his father taking a pedicab in the hutongs in 1989

Joseph's father, Smith Shumway, with some new Chinese friends.

Hutong shopping in 1989

Going on an excursion in the hutongs with Smith and Sarah Shumway, Joseph, and our little girls who turned one and two in China.

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