Hútòng Walking

Part of the Background section of A Better Guide to Běijīng

‘Where,’ demands the visitor, alternatively squinting at the fine mesh of streets marked on his map and then waving it in the face of the puzzled concierge, ‘is The Hútòng?’

The hútòng once provided instant ‘I’m a traveller — you’re just a tourist’ credibility, conveniently gained with minimum discomfort by merely turning a corner when organised tours went straight on. But now the beaten-up backstreets of Běijīng have joined the list of ‘must-sees’ for even the most opulent of tours.

Hútòng (胡同), singular and plural, a Mandarin word derived from the language of the capital’s Mongol founders, means nothing more than ‘alley’, and no map or guide, and certainly no ¥250 half-day tour in some Cadillac version of a bicycle rickshaw, is needed. Simply turn off the main streets boulevardised by communism, and you’re in a different world.

But if beauty is in the eye of the beholder, charm certainly is, too, as well as in the nose. Stage management of early China tourism kept foreigners well away from all but carefully sanitised poverty, but some tour operators and publishers learned that ‘where there’s muck, there’s brass’, as the increasing numbers of coffee table books of hútòng photography, each the cost of a week or two’s salary for the average Běijīng worker, testify. But if you want to see ‘real’ China — or, at least, real Běijīng — here it is.

This is the setting for Chinese television’s equivalent to long-running British backstreet soap opera Coronation Street. Families live crowded together in a jumble of ancient courtyard houses called sìhéyuàn (四合院), hundreds of years old, mixed with grim and grimy dormitory blocks, workshops and light industry. Few have proper running water, and washrooms and toilets are still commonly public. Nevertheless, air-conditioning units are stuck on crumbling walls, which sometimes seem like parcels tied together by cable television wiring with junction boxes as knots.

Here cars are relatively few compared with bicycles, cycle rickshaws, and HGV tricycles working as delivery vans, their flat beds overloaded with furniture or televisions, giving them worryingly limited braking power. Small guardian lion statues or drum stones on doorsteps, carved lintels, and roofs of ancient tile give clues to the history now covered with a patina of small scale commerce.

Walls have been knocked out to turn rooms into tiny shops. Seamstresses bend over wedding dress commissions; an old woman sits patiently next to her speak-your-weight machine; a man selling vegetables feeds baby rabbits that sit placidly among his produce; a woman in a highly slit qípáo (旗袍, cheongsam) and vertigo-inducing high heels beckons at the entrance of a dubious hairdressing salon; piles of bamboo steamers sit on miniature coal-fired stoves, offering tasty and filling dumplings for ridiculously low prices.

The dominant colour is grey — that of the brick and the coal smoke. Colour is provided by red peppers drying on a windowsill, by a woman cycling by with difficulty in a sheath dress of metallic blue sequins, by the partly knitted baby clothes of a row of mothers seated on small stools along a wall, or by a public toilet whose exterior is painted in a pink nearly as unpleasant as its smell. The lanes are playgrounds for children, a marketplace for adults, and, at night, for lives in which privacy is almost completely unknown, the place for trysts behind tree trunks.

In quieter hútòng, the day may begin with the fluid slow-motion exercises of tàijīquán (太极拳, tai chi), sometimes in the tiny parks that dot the city, sometimes in the streets themselves. As the day heats up, retired old men may be seen walking to meeting places under trees, carrying bamboo birdcages containing songbirds, which they uncover and suspend from wires strung between the branches, next to those of their friends. Both species proceed to chat.

As the day progresses, the shade also collects groups of Chinese chess, mājiāng (麻将, mahjong), and go players, and numerous onlookers. In the afternoon, back from school, children in Manchester United kit kick around a ball or play netless badminton. Once again allowed to own dogs, if only small ones and in limited numbers (there’s a black market in the licences), Beijingers have returned, appropriately, to keeping snuffling Pekinese, which are known in local slang as ‘capital barks’ (京巴, Jīngbā) but which they are allowed to exercise only in the evening.

As night falls, older ladies gather in larger open spaces for sessions of yāngge (秧歌) folk dancing to the beat of drum and cymbal, and process, conga-like, waving fans. Signs with characters made from Christmas lights indicate sales of kebabs (串, chuànr) or the availability of Internet access (网吧, wǎngbā). An electronic folk tune heard repeating itself at various distances comes from a sewage truck or from one spraying the road with water to reduce the dust.

From the higher floors of some of the better central hotels you can look down on much the same views as the first diplomats to reside in Běijīng might have seen. But the housing is now 150 years older, and the roofs are often sheets of corrugated material held down with piles of bricks, random pieces of lumber, and other debris, the houses huddled as close together as if in a rugby scrum.

Otherwise views are surprisingly green, and not only because roofs themselves are often overgrown. There are more than 130 parks of 16 acres or more around the town centre. Each spring massive planting campaigns can add as many as 11 million saplings to Běijīng’s tree count, or at least so the authorities claim. The most popular varieties in and around the city are the Chinese scholar tree, which has low resistance to pests, and the poplar and willow, whose feathery seeds blow around the streets in spring and early summer. Běijīng has now planted ginkgoes in the city, and persimmons, peaches, and walnuts in the surrounding countryside, with the hope of developing a viable fruit and nut industry.

In theory the trees also help to reduce Běijīng’s dreadful dustiness, but even so, whereas the international standard for dust fall is less than eight tonnes per square kilometre, Běijīng admits to 18.5 tonnes, and the truth is probably far worse. Most of it blown in by spring winds from 1.1 million acres of sandy wastes outside the centre, particularly from one county to the northwest, which is 300 metres higher than the city. The general pollution, much of it very nasty and from factories in surrounding Héběi Province, and the dust from continuous construction mean the sky is rarely blue.

The hútòng are also seeing a gradual return of more traditions than simply once-banned board games. The resumption of permission to own private businesses brought a return of the itinerant street vendors’ cries for which the city was once famous. These were once necessary to convey a sales pitch over courtyard walls to the women hidden within, but these days to reach from wind-swept plazas to the higher floors of surrounding towers.

The literary English eccentric Sir Osbert Sitwell, visiting Běijīng in 1934, noted cries including ‘I will give money for foreign bottles. I also buy scrap iron and broken glass,’ and a toy seller with ‘Buy, Small Man, they are lifelike, they have eyes and arms,’ as well as an orchestra’s worth of different percussion instruments identifying everything from hat sellers to porcelain menders.

You may now hear pear sellers yelling, ‘Sweet and crunchy!’ and may be woken in the morning by the long-drawn out ‘Mó jiǎnzi le, qiǎng cài dāo,’ (磨剪子了抢菜刀), advertising a willingness to sharpen knives and scissors. A cry of ‘shōu fèipǐn’ (收废品), accompanied by a metallic rattle, indicates the imminent arrival of a tricycle-mounted scrap collector. Hand-painted signs at narrow entrances hint at more modern and less mobile occupations: ‘I fix DVD players’.

Kite-flying traditionally dates back to the time of Confucius, and the Chinese once produced a wide variety of flying dragons, centipedes, and goldfish from paper or silk and bamboo. The imperial family were once the buyers of the most expensive kites, and after the downfall of the Qīng they were popular with rich actors: Chinese opera superstar Méi Lánfāng is said to have been an expert flyer. The kites of modern Běijīng are a mixture of the revived traditional shāyànr (沙燕儿, sand swallows) and yīng (鹰, eagles) and more modern Western ones, although the plastic of these is still printed with images of birds and dragons. Great altitudes are often obtained, particularly from tiny hútòng parks and bridges over the Second Ring Road, and the kites are mere specks.

Tradition has it that keeping birds in China dates back to a goose-loving calligrapher of the third century BCE. Bird ownership was once so popular, and the morning airing of the birds thought so important, that bird walkers were employed much in the way of dog walkers in developed countries today. Flocks of pigeons can commonly be seen whirling in ragged formation over the hútòng, and even now, despite the rapid growth of traffic and karaoke, the eerie moan made by bamboo whistles attached to the roots of their tail feathers can also be heard in the relative quiet of the hútòng labyrinth.

Pigeons and caged songbirds were the first pets to return after the Cultural Revolution of 1966–76 (during which it was dangerous to be connected with anything remotely amusing or bourgeois). But the Chinese have long trained birds to perform tricks and act as retrievers. Particularly in the autumn you may come across a small crowd gathered around a bicycle rickshaw with extra attachments to its handlebars, on which sit a small flock of grey, black-capped, yellow-beaked birds, a string from a chest feather tying each to its perch.

The owner tosses a small bead into the air, which the bird streaks to fetch. But even as it does so, a second bead is fired high into the sky from a blowpipe, which the bird also intercepts and then perhaps performs a little mid-air gambol as it returns to drop the beads into the palm of its owner and be rewarded with some flax seeds.

As in the past, some train the birds and fly them for pleasure, others train them to sell for up to eight times the price of an untrained chick. The birds used once to be found at the temple fairs, which have also recently been revived, often as a way of attracting visitors to otherwise overlooked locations. Many now stage events they never had before and limiting them mostly to Chinese New Year or Spring Festival.

The biggest fairs were once at the Lóngfú Sì just east of the top of Wángfǔ Jǐng, its site covered by the now-shuttered Lóngfú Dàshà department store with a token temple built on the roof, followed by that of the Hùguó Sì in a corresponding position on the west side of the city, of which only a single dilapidated hall remains. Another fair was held at the Bàoguó Sì, now completely turned over to the selling of antiques and bric-à-brac. In spring, look for details of fairs at Báiyún Guàn, Dì Tán, and Dōng Yuè Miào, and outside Běijīng at the Hóngluó Sì and Tánzhè Sì. These often amount to little more than street markets, but at some there’s now a comeback of traditional street performers, too: acrobats, musicians, and conjurers.

Many hútòng names give away the former presence of long-vanished landmarks, such as Three Palaces Hútòng, Three Wells Hútòng, Sleeping Buddha Temple Hútòng, or those named for grain warehouses. Some, such as Shí Family Hútòng, were named for former residents, and some for their shape, such as Sheep Horn Hútòng. The destruction of this cultural aspect of the hútòng began with the first campaigns of physical destruction in the early decades of the 20th century. Many of the more colourful names, such as Bald Zhāng Hútòng, disappeared during efforts to make them sound more cultured: Dog Tail Hútòng became Highly Moral Old Man Hútòng, which sounds vaguely similar in Mandarin.

Hútòng with names containing 库 () or ‘storehouse’ cannot be guaranteed to have contained anything of the sort, as this was substituted for the homophone 裤 (note the storehouse appears as the phonetic element on the right side of this character), meaning ‘trousers’. This would have referred to the shape of the hútòng but was thought vulgar.

Altogether more than 300 names were changed, also removing duplicates (there were 14 Well Hútòng), removing Manchu and Mongol names, and removing references to Qīng institutions, although residents often continued to use the names they’d grown up with, some of which survive to this day.

In 2015 the Běijīng government issued a 21-page rule book commanding further suppression of street name vulgarity, reported by the Xīnhuá ‘news’ agency as a process begun in 1949. This included the removal of ‘Dung Beetle Hútòng’, and forbade streets to be named after prostitutes, officials, or foreigners, with religious and ethnic names to be treated with discretion, recalling a Nationalist-era removal of references to ethnic minorities.

Despite all the fuss about new tourist attractions, destruction of old Běijīng continues, as the ancient alleys are bulldozed for more of the windy totalitarianism of immense boulevards and for often foreign-funded squeaky-clean shopping complexes and hotels. The government has been pulling down ancient housing almost since the day it took power, putting up first hideous six-storey brick blocks, then equally hideous concrete high-rises, and finally the ramshackle collection of aesthetically challenged office towers that prick the grey skies today.

Estimates of the numbers of hútòng past and present vary wildly, but there are said to have been several thousand in the Míng and Qīng dynasties, and still 3200 in 1944, (or 7000 in 1949 according to another source). But there are well under a thousand now, more than 300 having disappeared since the ’60s alone, and 600 a year by 2001, according to the 北京晚报 (Běijīng Wǎnbào, Běijīng Evening News). UNESCO estimates that 88% of traditional sìhéyuán courtyard houses have been torn down in the last three decades, but is merely repeating figures from some government source. No one cares about accuracy — merely about making a point.

There are now frequent but ineffectual local protests, which began to occur in number and volume when a large area was smashed down 20 years ago for a new cross-city highway, Píng’ān Dà Dào.

Eight thousand displaced residents were promised accommodation in new towers and apartments with private bathrooms. These turned out to be poorly constructed, far from both the centre of town and friends. Furthermore, although some of the residents had owned their homes since the 1940s, many were moved without compensation into rented property in violation both of the constitution and of more recent housing law.

Unsurprisingly, suing the government brought no relief, and since then the destruction has only accelerated. Developers are typically hand in hand with officials, who take vast kickbacks to provide planning permission and clear away residents, or whose relatives are partners in the projects.

Other areas of hútòng are cleared because planners envision a modern capital, effectively indistinguishable from any other metropolis, which can accommodate the city’s rapidly growing fleet of vehicles, including now more than five million private cars. The narrow hútòng get in their way, and in 1999 alone, 600 acres of hútòng housing was cleared for ‘safety’ reasons.

Once the dreaded character 拆 (chāi, ‘demolish’) appears daubed in red on the side of a house, its fate is sealed. For the construction of the Grand National Theatre behind the Great Hall of the People, the residents were just given small sums in cash and told to go. The hideously expensive building acts as a showcase for the ‘superiority of Chinese culture’, say officials, who obviously feel that they are sweeping away much of the inferior side to do it.

It is estimated that for construction related in one way or another to the 2008 Olympics no fewer than 1.5 million people were forcibly relocated: a figure similar to that for the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangzi River, yet with an utterly shameful lack of protest or even much comment of any kind from participant nations.

The pressure for construction is not only due to government vanity, but also to the increase in the number of residents. Běijīng’s population, already 15 million, is expected to reach 22.5 million in just over a decade. Some say it has reached 22 million already. Since the area officially included within the city’s boundaries amounts to a total of 16,800sqkm, there’s not quite the crush that might suggest, but the demand for more housing means ever more towers.

Many foreign residents have managed to rent hútòng houses during periods of work or study in the capital, but there’s a reluctance to sell to them. The same officials bent on driving away residents to what they say will be more modern and hygienic surroundings often do so in order to move in themselves after extensive modernisation. According to one estimate there are now fewer than 3000 original courtyard houses in existence, and in 2007 one sold for the equivalent of US$14 million. Media mogul Rupert Murdoch is said to have paid US$30 million for another during his ill-fated attempts to seduce the Chinese government into giving him access to television broadcasting.

However, one government source suggests that only 25 to 30 sales a year go to foreigners, with the usual excuse for refusal being that the property lies within 500m of a government building or police station, which, given the density of the mechanisms for supervision of the population, probably rules out most of the city’s core altogether.

There’s frightening talk of preserving a few hútòng for posterity — in a city where preservation usually means complete reconstruction and prettification. One oft-quoted but sourceless figure is that eventually only 20 hútòng will be preserved, but ‘preservation’ already undertaken has produced much that’s no more than rebuilding from the ground up in a vaguely traditional style but with garage doors and in two storeys, known as fǎnlǎo (返老), kindly translated as ‘rejuvenated’ but more accurately rendered as ‘fake’.

In 2010 a public campaign partly organised by the Běijīng Cultural Heritage Protection Center (en.bjchp.org) protested at the proposed clearance of 16 hectares of hútòng around the Drum and Bell Towers and met with what looked like success.

But such victories are few, and, as it turned out with the Drum and Bell Tower development, short-lived.

Better take that quiet turning now while it’s still there to take.

See Bĕijīng Walks: Forward to the Past, Out Clubbing, In the Depths of Many Flowers, In Search of the Ice Houses, Legation Quarter.

Next in Background: Where’s the Loot?
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