A HUNCHED OLD MAN SHUFFLES PAST IN QUILTED PAJAMAS and slippers, as a stray dog berates him from the ramshackle roof above. A barber hangs a forest of purple towels to dry outside his one-chair salon, while a nearby greengrocer tosses out the rotten plums from his display. A few doors down, a couple in designer sunglasses drink espressos on the terrace of a boutique hotel, as a ginger-bearded barman wipes down tables in the 1920s-styled Spanish restaurant across the way.
This is Baochao Hutong – a street perfectly representing the ever-shifting balance between old and new Beijing. Hutongs are narrow alleyways found in the historic center of the Chinese capital. They are formed by line-upon-line of traditional single-story courtyard houses called siheyuan, an architectural phenomenon seen across China, but most prominently in Beijing. The courtyards of siheyuans are surrounded by buildings on all four sides and accessed through an often grandly decorated gateway. These residences traditionally housed single wealthy families who, perhaps ostentatiously, followed the basic architectural pattern of palaces, monasteries and temples seen across the land.
The earliest siheyuans were built according to the principles of feng shui and date back to the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). Many featured red doors within stone gateways, whose carved exteriors hint at the lives and professions of the occupants inside. This method of building relatively small houses with additional communal space at their center came long before, yet is very similar to, the single-story courtyard residences of colonial Spain.
Liang Sicheng, regarded as the father of modern Chinese architecture, once praised Beijing as an “unparalleled masterpiece of city planning.” Ever since the foundations were laid during the Shang Dynasty however, China’s last imperial city has been constantly evolving – and the hutongs are a prime example of this.
Despite ever-creeping gentrification, many modern-day hutong households still retain elements of more primitive housing amenities. Today, siheyuans have been subdivided to accommodate multiple generations and even separate families. But with no legal limit on the number of people who can occupy one house, conditions have become cramped. Some residents get by with less than 10 square meters of space per person and without any form of central heating or indoor plumbing. And the hutong’s grey brick lanes are dotted with communal squat toilets that residents can still be seen dashing to in the freezing dead of a winter’s night.
UNTIL RECENTLY, THE CHINESE GOVERNMENT CONSIDERED HUTONGS an embarrassing relic – the antithesis of China’s push towards fast-paced development and achieving nascent superpower status. Since the 1980s, and in particular during the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, over two thirds of the city’s more than 3,000 hutongs were ripped out and replaced with new tower blocks, featuring indoor toilets and a bevy of other modern necessities. But such widespread leveling sparked new interest from locals, expats and even state-run media in protecting the historic alleyways and their ancient traditions. Today hutong life is thriving once again, albeit in a more modern vein.
Even Baochao Hutong, where the People’s Republic of China founder Mao Zedong spent his childhood, only narrowly escaped modernizing efforts that would have resulted in its destruction. The lane lies within Beijing’s Gulou district, named after the 700-year-old twin Drum and Bell Towers that originally served as the city’s timekeepers.
Situated directly north of the Forbidden City, the area dodged a redevelopment plan dubbed “Time Cultural City” as recently as 2010. Under these plans, digging would have taken place around the two towers and the adjoining Ming and Qing Dynasty hutongs to create an underground network of restaurants and shops, centered around a museum chronicling China’s timekeeping inventions.
The shelving of these proposals was largely thanks to pressure from the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center (CHP), a Chinese NGO that works at a grassroots level to promote and protect China’s overlooked historical gems. Rosie Levine, a fresh-faced and enthusiastic 24-year-old from Boston in the United States, is the program director at the CHP. She explains that such aggressive tourism drives can do more harm than good to the traditional corners of the capital, citing the example of Nanlouguxiang Hutong, a touristy street packed with shops and eateries running north to south in the Dongcheng district.
“Nanluoguxiang attracts thousands of tourists each day, but this poses a serious threat to the historic buildings along the street and has completely disrupted the local communities who used to live along the quiet lane,” Levine says. “If every street in Beijing were like Nanluoguxiang, I think Beijing’s heritage would be in a dire situation.” Indeed, as buildings are revamped, rents begin to sour. This has the effect of pricing the poorest residents and mom-and-pop stores out of the area, in favor of glitzy boutiques selling expensive knickknacks and novelty snacks.
Nanluoguxiang attracts thousands of tourists each day, but this poses a serious threat to the historic buildings along the street and has completely disrupted the local communities who used to live along the quiet lane
Levine also admits that not all development is bad. In fact, in many areas of the city, including Gulou, cramped and often substandard housing is being turned into hipster coffee shops and swish wine bars without ruining the existing fabric of the neighborhood. If managed well, regeneration can promote a sense of pride in the community, alleviate poverty and increase appreciation and awareness of Chinese heritage.
She also says that Nanlouguxiang is an exception in terms of visitors. “Fortunately, most hutongs do not attract the same level of tourism,” Levine adds. She says if managed well, the outside interest can be a positive thing. “Tourism provides a great incentive for preservation and maintenance of older structures.”