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17-22 May 2018.
At 6pm we all meet in the lobby of the hotel. There are eight of us (from England, USA, Australia, and Canada) plus Peter, our guide through China for the next three weeks. Peter once told me his Chinese name and I tried to remember it, and used it a couple of times, but it didn’t stick. He said that his English teacher gave him the name Peter. Peter is easy for us westerners to say and to remember, but it felt like what it was: an overlay, creating no doubt (and appropriately) a different persona from his at home Chinese self. We visited his town, and met his young son, and saw photographs of his wife, and I can imagine him in that setting, free of tour-guide responsibilities, being a somewhat different person, the person who goes by his Chinese name. We know him as friendly, funny, knowledgeable, and efficient – a good guy and a good guide. We are lucky to have him.

After introductions we follow Peter like a badling of ducklings, our trust in him unquestioned. He leads us first by bus, and then by walking down ever-narrowing streets to a family-owned restaurant unknown to tourists in a quiet back street in one of Beijing’s hutong areas.

Once settled around the table Peter orders the most sumptuous meal: eggplant, various other vegetables, pork, lamb, omelette, kung pao chicken, and of course Peking duck. I’d heard of Peking duck of course but never seen it. I’d assumed it was some kind of roast duck like you see hanging in the restaurants in just about every Chinatown anywhere. Well it is really – tender meat with crispy reddish-golden skin, but it’s often more than that. My introduction to it is slender slices of duck wrapped in thin crepes with green onions, cucumber, and a special sauce. It’s delicious, but the star of this meal for me is the broccoli. I’m a big broccoli eater but never before have I had broccoli like this. It’s cooked to perfection, but it’s the sauce that has me swooning, a sauce to write home about. I have no idea what’s in it; I just know it’s the best broccoli I’ve ever eaten.

I return, and return again, to Beijing’s hutong areas curious to see and feel old Beijing, the Beijing that goes back hundreds of years, the Beijing that has escaped the modernisation of the current manic economic boom that is China. It’s like visiting the old town of many cities, from Gamla Stan in Stockholm, to the beautifully preserved Spanish colonial central core of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, to the old streets of Varanasi snugged close down by the Ghats of the Ganges, or to the ancient central core of many cities throughout the world that has somehow survived and been preserved. And, except for the narrow winding streets that clearly were not built for modern transportation, the hutongs of Beijing are completely different from all of these.

Hutongs are essentially the old alleyways formed by the continuous joining of traditional courtyard houses known as siheyuan (see-hay-wan), and thus forming a hutong neighbourhood. The oldest date back over six hundred years. They were first established in the Yuan dynasty (1206-1341) and expanded during the Ming (1368-1628) and Qing (1644-1908) dynasties.

In the past they covered all of Beijing, fanning out from the Imperial Court in the Forbidden City. The most luxurious and exclusive homes, those of the aristocracy, were closest to the Forbidden City. The furthest away were those of lowest status: labourers, merchants, and artisans. Their houses were smaller and the hutongs narrower.

My first visit I go alone, before the tour starts, to the hutong area close to the hotel. I feel a bit self-conscious as I wander curiously down ever-narrower and almost empty grey streets. These are residential streets largely unknown to tourists. What I find is wall after grey brick wall of conjoined single story houses.

I find doorways that leave me more curious than ever

and alleys that lead deeper into evermore mysterious places.

In a large open area the trees are hung with festive red lanterns. It feels alive, open, friendly, safe. People come and go,

some sit playing mahjong, writing, chatting. There is a mail delivery,

and in the small alleys that lead from this space there is the daily life of a deeply intimate, and ultimately ordinary neighbourhood.

Many of the hutong areas have been razed to be replaced by new roads and modern multi-story dwellings. Now there is an effort to save those that are left. Some areas have been preserved and renovated, but in some places the ancient pathways are still visible, bricks laid down hundreds of years ago, worn with time and thousands, probably millions, of feet passing over them.

When I first go into a hutong area, alone, I don’t know what to expect. I just follow streets labelled “hutong” on the map, and discover these plain grey streets and alleys, with very little apparent life in them. What I don’t realise until afterwards is that the wide-open space with the red-lanterned trees is also part of the hutong neighbourhood. I begin my search feeling a little disappointed but immensely curious. I end it back at the hotel thoroughly beguiled.

On the way back to the hotel I see a line-up of people in one of the alleys leading off Red Lantern Square (as I’ve called it) and immediately go there to see what they’re lined up for.

What I find is the local hutong bakery, barely more than a hole-in-the-wall. In this tiny space four people are making, baking, and selling bread and everyone is lined up to get it fresh from the oven.

The aroma wafts out to welcome me and I join the line. For pennies I buy a bag full of the hot round flat bread. It’s too hot to eat right away but as it cools I eat while walking the short distance back to the hotel. It’s so good! There is nothing like fresh bread straight from the oven and my heart is warmed along with my belly.

Peter takes us to make dumplings somewhere in one of the hutong areas. In a small room that seems to be part house, part restaurant dining room, he shows us how. He makes several tiny, perfectly shaped dumplings, each one different, and good enough to be served in any restaurant. After much deep concentration from us a pile of oddly shaped lumps appears.

We are much like a bunch of kids with play dough. I’m not very good at it. Some of the others do better, but none of us quite match Peter’s skill.

And then comes a great surprise. At least it is to me. The Cricket Man appears. He speaks little or no English but his personality and energy fill the small room. He has been breeding fighting crickets all his life and clearly he is something of an expert, and a celebrity, in his field.

Cricket fighting has been popular in China for over a thousand years. It is not illegal, though gambling on it is, which doesn’t seem to stop it. The sport is huge. In 2010 more than US$63 million was spent on crickets and cricket fighting paraphernalia. They are sold openly in street markets and are carefully bred by expert keepers who feed them ground shrimp, red beans, goat liver and other delicacies. These are very pampered little crickets. In fights they are arranged by weight class, and the loser is the first to turn away from the battle. Rarely are they injured, and even more rarely killed. It’s kind of like cock fighting in miniature and without the blood.

The sport is taken very seriously. There is a national governing body of cricket fighting and the National Cricket Fighting Championships are held every year in Beijing. More than twenty teams from across China compete. There is no gambling at this event, or none that is overt anyway. Winning is for the honour and prestige. In a small smoky room nearby, fans can watch the matches live as they are broadcast onto a screen. We however are content to have Cricket Man show us his tools of the trade, and, of course, his crickets.

A short walk brings us to the rickshaw taxi stand.

Two by two we climb in and roll off into the neighbourhood. It feels swift as lightening, racing through the streets, some wide enough for cars, some very narrow, twisting and turning around this bend and that, no explanation, so much to see, and no time to take it in. It’s fun, but no way to document the area. All I can do is take some quick snaps to try to capture the flavour of it.

Intriguing doorways surrounded by red for luck and with the traditional ancient stone carvings at the base,

a tiny hardware store, a small convenience store, a fruit and vegetable store, it’s contents spilling out into the street,

a dress store with a renovated shop front but still with the tell-tale traditional grey tile roof, enticing glimpses into courtyards and lanes accessorised with bicycles and dressed with laundry.

There’s a wall with big clay pots inlaid into the brickwork, a tiny shop selling food seeds, an abandoned auto-rickshaw and pedicab both of which have seen better days, and motor scooters parked anywhere they can fit.

It’s a lived-in residential neighbourhood full of the character that comes from years of seasoning, dotted with diminutive stores catering to basic daily needs, and communal bathrooms (and kitchens) for the many homes that don’t have private facilities.

There are people around but it’s quiet. Nobody’s rushing anywhere.

Some streets are tree-lined, their branches full with late spring leaves providing welcome shade. Sometimes I see tall trees that are obviously growing in one of the inner courtyards.

Peter tells us that many young people are leaving the siheyuan for modern apartments. I can relate to the temptation but they then miss out on the sense of history and belonging that comes from being in a home that has been in the same family for many generations. Life in the hutongs has both its advantages and disadvantages. It’s cosy and intimate with a groundedness that comes from years of existence. The feeling is laid back, as if time has slowed down. On the other hand the houses are butted up against each other, and some courtyards have been filled in with even more homes. There’s no escaping your neighbours. The sense of community is strong, but lack of privacy and modern amenities can be an issue.

At the end of the rickshaw tour we arrive at the large open area between the Drum Tower

and the Bell Tower.

As long ago as the Han Dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE) there was a morning bell and an evening drum to help people keep track of time, and drum and bell towers are found in most Chinese cities. The Beijing towers, dating from the Ming Dynasty, were used for official timekeeping up until 1924, and for years dominated the skyline. The space between them was at one time filled with shops and businesses. These days it is an open public space frequented by tourists and used by the people of the nearby hutongs.

It is in these open public squares that the people of the hutongs have the space to spread out and come together. Groups gather to play Mahjong,

or Go

or Chinese Chess

or use the wide open space for a game of roller hockey.

Walking on from there we come to an area that has seen modern development while preserving the feel of the hutong neighbourhood. Buildings that still retain the iconic grey roof tiles and brick walls have been renovated and some converted into hotels, cafes, and restaurants.

There are pottery shops, dress shops

and antique shops.

The hutong neighbourhoods are the living history of the city. The more I learned about them the more I came to appreciate them. Because they are so old every street has a story or anecdote from earlier times. They were the birthplace of the Beijing Opera and the first Chinese stock market. The houses are ramshackle and it’s all a bit rundown, but these historic areas have been a vibrant part of Beijing life since the 13th century, and today they are about as far as you can get from the modern Beijing of multi-story buildings, designer stores, trendy bars, and neon lights. And with the movement to save the remaining hutongs, and the continuing renovations perhaps it’s not yet the last days of old Beijing.

Next post: Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2019.