Two tricycles approach each other along the valley, neither giving way. One carries a mound of flattened cardboard, the other a cartload of coal. At the last minute the recycler rings her bell and swerves just in time to avoid a collision. The coalman, in his Mao-style padded jacket, spits and parks his tricycle cum cart outside a courtyard house.
Hutongs, narrow alleyways, in Beijing. Click image for more photographs of Beijing.
I am in Beijing searching out what is left of the hutongs, the narrow streets that criss-cross the wider north-south roads of the capital. They have been a feature of city life since the Yuan Mongol dynasty (1279-1368). For many centuries and until quite recently the hutong and the siheyuan, the distinctive courtyard houses that line the narrow alleys, have been the root and branch of social life in Beijing.
The coalman takes his delivery up the steps of the one-storey building guarded by stone lions and pushes open the mahogany red door. It is framed by grey walls and crowned with a geometric red, green and blue woodwork carving. The eaves, tucked under two layers of grey tiles, jut out over the door. The roofs dip and soar against the blue winter sky, echoing the flamboyant curves of the imperial palace of the nearby Forbidden City.
Just inside the entrance, an elaborate carved stone frieze protects the inhabitants against evil spirits and prying eyes. As the coalman opens the door wide, light spills on to a courtyard beyond. Two children kick a shuttlecock. A bird in a gilded cage keeps an old man company as he and his friends play mahjong under the fig tree.
The central courtyard, surrounded by rooms on four sides, overspills with plants, cooking utensils and sacks of vegetables. The layout and the coloured wooden friezes reflect that of many Buddhist temples. The ornate decoration, the height of the steps and the lions guarding the door denote that this courtyard house belongs, or has belonged, to a rich person of some prestige.
The coalman continues along the street, opening doors to reveal less spacious areas. Zuo Shu Xian, who lives alone, shares the small courtyard with two other families. Zuo Shu is keen to stay in the area where she has lived for 50 years. It is quiet and peaceful. The high roofs and thick walls mean that the house is cool in summer and warm in winter.
“I enjoy the community in the hutong,” Zuo Shu says. “I can play mahjong with my friends and neighbours at any time and I am never alone.”
She pays a nominal rent and can pass the house on to her children, but it is unlikely they will take up the offer even though other rents can be considerably higher. Her married children prefer the creature comforts of the modern apartment blocks further out of the city. Besides, the streets are too narrow for their newly acquired cars.
Zuo Shu denies that overcrowding is a problem. She admits there are sometimes conflicts when families share water and electricity and cook in the courtyard at the same time. It is not uncommon for fights to break out between children. But the neighbourhood committee is always on hand to resolve disputes, to root out any suspicious behaviour or even to ensure adherence to the one-child policy.
Not all courtyard houses have retained their original function. What was once the house of a high-ranking imperial official is now a day nursery. It is an impressive building with an outer courtyard originally used to receive guests or to stage an opera performance and an inner courtyard for family and servants. Now the house has been transformed by Chinese folk murals, climbing frames and circles on the courtyard floor to mark where children stand in line for early morning exercises. Even the three-year-olds are able to demonstrate impressive kung fu skills.
The street names reveal much of the history of each area. Liulichang hutong, now famous for its bookshops and antiques, was so called because of the presence of a government glazed-tile factory during the Yuan era. Some names, such as Dachaye hutong (Great Tealeaf Alley), indicate the merchandise that is, or has been, on sale in the street.
During the Ming period there were 1200 streets of which 459 were hutongs. By the Qing period the number had increased to more than 2000 and, when in 1949 Mao proclaimed the formation of the People’s Republic of China, there were about 3000 hutongs. A significant increase in the Beijing population between 1949 and 1959 compelled the newly formed communist regime to have different families share the same courtyard and different generations of the same family share the units within. More recently, however, the hutongs have been under threat. Demolition started in earnest in the 1980s and every year since the late ’90s new developments such as roads, high-rise residences and commercial districts have destroyed whole areas. The word chai painted on walls or doors — indicating that the building is to be demolished — has become a regular feature of the hutong landscape.
Ian Johnson, former Wall Street Journal correspondent in Beijing, reported that in the ’90s more than 200,000 people lost their homes in the old city and received practically no compensation. Many were elderly, cut off from their social support systems and unable to travel back to their previous employment.
Preparation for the Olympics has exacerbated the situation. Roads have had to be built to accommodate more traffic; investment in the infrastructure of the city and the boom of the real-estate industry is in part because of the Games.
There has been some organised opposition. From 1998 the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Centre, which became a non-government organisation in 2003, set up telephone hotlines and developed a website to support the campaign against destruction of the hutongs. In 2000, Fang Ke, a student of a respected professor of architecture, published a book on the subject. In 2003, Chengji (Record of a City) by journalist Wang Jun became an instant bestseller.
In 2002, the Government responded by identifying 25 historic areas to be conserved. The selection was based on the state of repair and the architectural and historical value. Within the second ring road, the height of buildings was regulated, roofs were to be slanted at the correct angle and those that did not conform were to be demolished. The revival of temples, folk customs and traditional entertainment was also encouraged.
In some areas this has led to increased commercialisation. Bars and restaurants line the banks of Houhai (Back Lake) and rickshaw drivers point to A3 laminated cards inviting you to visit the Bell Tower, the Drum Tower or eat noodles with a local family. In the summer, women dressed in qipao (high-collared one-piece Manchu-style gown) play the pipa on traditional boats, serenading lovers. Some new developments, such as the Ju’er hutong project, have attempted to preserve the character of courtyard housing. The development features two-storey apartments, hotels, shops and restaurants. But the traditional residents have been pushed out of the area and replaced by young professionals.
Not all areas have been destroyed or gentrified. There are still hutongs within the old city where travelling bakers keep bread warm in oil-can furnaces, where noodle-pullers operate out of steam-filled restaurants and where the coalman continues to deliver to rich and poor alike. But how far the hutong as representative of a communal way of life will exist beyond the Olympics is not clear.
All that may remain is a museum sheltering uncomfortably under the shadow of the Olympic bubblewrap swimming pool and the steel-framed bird’s nest stadium designed by leading international architects.
I take my last glimpse as the coalman carries his final delivery into the courtyard beyond, laid out according to feng shui principles. A large pomegranate tree holds a gilded birdcage and shelters fish in the pond below. I am told there should always be one blossoming plant in the courtyard to remind the inhabitants of the Buddhist emphasis on impermanence. It seems that the hutongs, despite their courtyard houses with solid grey walls, double-tiled roofs, lions at the door and wall friezes to protect against evil spirits, will not be able to stave off the threat to their historic and communal way of life. They too are impermanent.
This article first appeared in the Australian on April 5 2008.