Street life and learnings

Avtar Singh | Updated on May 10, 2019

Remember the time: More than half of Beijing’s hutongs have been lost   -  ISTOCK.COM

A walk through Beijing’s ancient hutongs isn’t just about the past. There are lessons to be learnt about the present and future as well

I recently took a guided hutong tour. The hutong is an alley that separates the courtyard houses, or siheyuan, that are characteristic of “old” Beijing. It is also the neighbourhood that grew up around the alley, because the people who lived in the homes met each other on the street, transacted business there, had an ecosystem that supported the families that lived on it.

The alleys radiated outwards from the Forbidden City and its attendant structures, such as the large temples where imperial rituals were performed. A glance at a map of central Beijing will reveal a grid. The hutongs are its constituent lines.

The hutong is thus the basic historic unit of urbanism in the Beijing context. It has been so for 800 years, give or take, through dynastic change and political upheaval.

The tower blocks that mark Beijing’s outward growth are testament to a new reality of city life, however. As urban planners will tell anyone who is listening, there simply isn’t enough room to house everyone at ground level. To that end, there are shared amenities on the ground floors of the towers, and the individual homes in the soaring structures have access to comforts such as indoor sanitation that hutong homes still can’t take for granted.

Still, to walk in a hutong isn’t merely to experience a remnant of the past. In a way, it is a study in resilience in the present moment, if not always renewal.

During the walk, we got to meet people like Mrs Wang, a Muslim resident who can trace 21 generations of her family’s time in Beijing. Those deep roots sustained her when her family was targeted for its ‘bourgeois’ antecedents during the Cultural Revolution. After her ‘rehabilitation’, she petitioned the authorities to give her back her old home. She’s been reclaiming bits and pieces of it through the legal process, and runs a café there with the help of her daughter, who divides her time between the US and Beijing. When we visited they were bustling about making customers comfortable, serving hipster-friendly infused teas. From the roof terrace, we could see over the pitched tiled roofs that would have defined this view since Beijing began.

Jiang Wen’s 2018 movie Hidden Man is hit-and-miss in terms of story. But its evocation of 1930s Beijing is a visual treat. In one scene, a man rides a bicycle across the closely packed roofs of the siheyuan. The woman he is courting watches amusedly from her own home, her view unrestricted.

If you tried really hard from Mrs Wang’s terrace — that is, if you could ignore the Brutalist apartments of the early liberation era in the foreground and the more recent architectural statements by Hadid and Koolhaas further back — you might think you were there.


But you can’t ignore the present, no matter how strong your filter. Not in China; certainly not in Beijing. The turbulence of the past has been too much.

The haphazard growth, after the fall of the Qing empire, of what was a previously tightly-controlled urban space; the shifting of the capital to Nanjing by the Republicans; the post-liberation disregard of the communists for the old certainties, which included requisitioning and tearing down of the siheyuan; the tearing down of the city walls. The destruction wrought in the lead-up to the 2008 Olympics was merely the seal. More than half of Beijing’s historic hutongs have disappeared.

Belatedly, ‘conservation’ has become a watchword and the remaining hutongs are sought to be protected. This too is problematic. The street-level economy that is the heart of city life has been threatened in recent years in the name of ‘urban rejuvenation’. Markets have been relocated, restaurants summarily bricked up, vendors who can’t afford permanent space dispatched to the city’s peripheries. Apparently the hutongs need to be maintained in a sort of aspic, a vision of purity and authenticity that potentially never existed.

The tour I took, conducted by a group called Beijing Postcards, engages with precisely these issues. Their idea is that conservation and development needn’t be antagonistic. Even the factories of the recent communist past have their role to play in this scheme. Old structures can be turned into galleries, bars, shops and studios; even dwelling spaces that are light, airy, and comfortable. As long as they’re well-designed, safe, and fit-for-purpose, why not?

Let people stay in their homes. If they want, let them use their spaces in creative ways to make a living where they always have. It’s such an easy formulation, it is almost subversive.


An elderly gentleman called Hu welcomed us to the home he shares with his wife. A retired master paintbrush maker, he still practises his craft from his small place. Every last inch of space is utilised. Yet he was adamant he didn’t want to leave for a larger space in the suburbs.

Beijing has been his home for decades. His neighbours were his family, the street his living room. His house was where he ate, slept and made brushes. Everything else was outside.

Unlike Mrs Wang, he wasn’t born in Beijing. But he’d made it his home. He didn’t have to say it. The city belonged, in their small corner of it, to his wife and him.

He gave us a brush each as we left. I protested. I would have preferred to buy it.

It’s a gift, he smiled.

Avtar Singh   -  BUSINESS LINE


Avtar Singh is the author of Necropolis. He lives in Beijing; Email:

Published on May 10, 2019

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