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PHOTOESSAY – The disappearing hutongs of Beijing

June 14, 2015
One of the larger streets in a hutong
One of the larger streets in a hutong

One of the larger streets in a hutong

The hutongs of Beijing offer a stark contrast and look-back in this now vertical city filled with dazzling skyscrapers.

One way to get a glimpse of Beijing as it was centuries ago is to walk through its maze of narrow tree-lined streets and alleys, called hutongs.

Although many Hutongs were bulldozed in the mid-1900s to make way for modern roads and buildings, it is estimated that about 4500 remain, predominantly in older areas of the city. Some date back more than 700 years to the Yuan Dynasty (1260-1368).

Design of the hutongs

Hutongs are passageways formed by the gray brick, tile-roofed housing compounds that line both their sides. Organized in orderly rows, the buildings create four-sided courtyards (called siheyuan) that once had gardens and wells at their centers. Many have been rebuilt several times and replaced by gray concrete block but retain their traditional look and character.

An alley

A typical alley in the Houxiaojia Hutong

Another residential alley

Another residential alley

Housing and bicycles

Housing and bicycles

Over the years, most have been subdivided and are now densely filled with multigenerational families. Some families have lived within these walls for many decades forming tight-knit communities.

By tradition, doors are painted bright red, many flanked by lions or drum stones. The walls are typically gray because during the Ming and Qing dynasties (between 1360 and 1911), only buildings inside the Forbidden City were allowed to use bright colored tiles. The structures were all built facing south to maximize light.

Traditional hutong doors

Traditional red doors and door frames

Traditional red doors

More traditional red doors

Most hutongs are named according to their location, history or the types of businesses once there. Originally known by word-of-mouth, names were later written down in the Ming and Qing dynasties. Now on some corners, you can find posted plaques that describe their history, often with English translations.

Corner plaques

Corner plaques

Pedal power 

Cars can wedge through the larger streets but pedals predominate, both to carry people and transport goods. Bicycles, pedicabs and sidecars (some with small motors) whiz through carrying tourists and locals.

Local transportation

Local transportation

More local transportation

More local transportation

More contemporary transport

More contemporary tourist-friendly transport

Life in the hutong

Residents within the cramped one-story buildings share communal kitchens and use public restrooms that often have no running water. Many still use coal firebricks for heat. Older residents enjoy the camaraderie of playing mah jongg, chess or cards, or simply sitting outside in the sun. They often rely on local vendors or peddlers for food and household goods.

Not just a place but a way of life

Not just a place but a way of life

Hutong culture

Hutong culture

A local grocer in the hutong

A local grocer in the hutong

A hardware store in the hutong

A hardware store in the hutong

Public toilets

Public toilets

Many residents having small recycling businesses

Many residents have small recycling businesses

Gentrification and preservation

In recent years, young Chinese entrepreneurs have rented space in some hutongs to open Western-style cafes, bars, nail shops and small boutiques. According to a recent Los Angeles Times news report, rents in one such hutong (Nanluogu Xiang) increased by 50 times over what they were six years ago. Although gentrification has markedly changed the character of these neighborhoods, ironically, it has allowed some landlords and their families to sustain their way of life. The Chinese government is also taking steps to preserve some hutongs as protected areas to safeguard their cultural and architectural legacy.

New-age type shops in the Wudaoyin Hutong

New-age type shops in the Wudaoyin Hutong

A way of life in transition

A way of life in transition


Read more about Hutong culture:

  • The New Yorker has a fascinating story written in 2006 by staff writer, Peter Hessler, who lived in an apartment building near one of these alleys for five years.

Tips for Travelers:

  • Set out in the morning when the streets are less crowded.
  • While you can visit by sidecar or rickshaw, walking allows you to set your own pace and peek inside doors and gates.
  • Streets and alleys can be very narrow with uneven surfaces; take care to avoid stumbling or getting sideswiped by cyclists or motorists.
  • Take a walking tour with a bilingual guide who can bring you to more traditional hutongs (avoiding ones filled with throngs of tourists), take you inside courtyards, and bring history to life.

IF YOU GO

We highly recommend the Hip Hutongs Tour we took with Context Travel. Our docent Valentina Punzi, a scholar in Chinese and Tibetan studies, was amazing.

  • Reply
    Laura
    June 14, 2015 at 8:17 pm

    This is outstanding, Irene! I’m so impressed with how you always immerse yourself in the local culture when you travel. The Hutongs remind me of the Snow flower book and how I imagined some of the scenery. Is this going to be published elsewhere?

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      June 14, 2015 at 9:56 pm

      I’m in the midst of writing another piece on the hutongs. Stay tuned, Laura!

  • Reply
    Donna Janke
    June 14, 2015 at 9:53 pm

    Great photos of Beijing. Very colourful. I now want to learn more about hutong culture.

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      June 17, 2015 at 1:51 pm

      Be sure to read the New Yorker article. It’s great!

  • Reply
    Betsy Wuebker | PassingThru
    June 15, 2015 at 12:09 am

    This tour of the hutongs of Beijing would definitely be a priority for me on a visit. How fascinating, particularly the bicycle conveyances!

  • Reply
    Muza-chan
    June 15, 2015 at 9:03 am

    Great photos…

  • Reply
    Barbara Kingstone
    June 15, 2015 at 9:41 am

    WHAT GREAT MEMORIES YOU BROUGHT BACK SINCE I SAW THE FIRST HUTONGS ABOUT 10 YEARS AGO, BEFORE THE DESTRUCTION OF MANY OF THESE DETERIORATING HOUSES. I WENT BACK A FEW MONTHS AGO AND SADLY, THERE ARE MORE HUTONGS BEING TORN DOWN. AND CONDO BEING BUILT THE 1ST TIME, I WAS ACTUALLY INVITED INTO ONE OF THE HUTONGS AND IT WAS EXPLAINED THROUGH AN INTERPRETER, THAT THE COURTYARD IS USED BY THE FOUR HOUSES AND OFTEN THEY PLANT FLOWERS AND VEGGIES. HOWEVER, SOME NEIGHBOURS AREN’T AS FRIENDLY TO EACH OTHER AND THERE HAVE BEEN TIFFS THAT GO ON FOR YEARS. REMARKABLE AREA. A MUST SEE. PROUDEST POSSESSION IS A FRIDG. YOUR PHOTOGRAPHY IS SUPERB.

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      June 16, 2015 at 7:40 am

      Thanks for visiting this blog, Barbara.
      We saw some refrigerators in the streets (shared by families) as well as fresh waters dispensers on corners.

  • Reply
    Denis Gagnon
    June 15, 2015 at 10:29 am

    Fascinating and very comprehensive article about the hutongs of Beijing. Like you, I have always preferred walking thru the narrow streets and taking in the sights which abound at every turn. Great posting!

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      June 15, 2015 at 10:31 am

      Thanks! There are so many hutongs to explore. I would return in a heartbeat!

  • Reply
    noel
    June 15, 2015 at 2:11 pm

    I’m glad they are finally preserving what few remain, what a shame in the name of progress and development.

  • Reply
    Carole Terwilliger Meyers
    June 15, 2015 at 6:01 pm

    This is a very interesting post about the hutongs in Beijing. I had been hoping to take a pedicab tour of some of them on my recent visit but didn’t have the time, though I did view some of the hutongs from the main streets.

  • Reply
    The GypsyNesters
    June 15, 2015 at 11:15 pm

    We missed the hutong when we visited Beijing. Very interesting!

  • Reply
    Josie
    June 16, 2015 at 7:06 am

    Hi Irene,

    I think it’s good to remember that millions of people have very little and live a life of struggle. The humble homes of the hutongs show people who have learned how to be resourceful and hard-working — even playing games. The visions are bitter-sweet.
    Thanks for sharing, my friend.
    Josie

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      June 17, 2015 at 1:52 pm

      Thanks for that great message. They also seem to have achieved longevity in the process.

      • Reply
        Laura
        June 17, 2015 at 6:52 pm

        I would imagine their longevity is due in large part to their diet; rice, whole grains, lean fish, vegetables, probably little or no processed foods.

        • Irene S. Levine
          Reply
          Irene S. Levine
          June 18, 2015 at 8:43 am

          I’m not sure of their diets but I know that a number of studies have associated longevity with strong social supports, like that found in the hutongs.

          • Laura
            June 18, 2015 at 11:35 am

            I was referring to the traditional Asian diet, which is much different than the Americanized version of Chinese food. http://bit.ly/1H0m3gr

  • Reply
    Catherine Sweeney
    June 16, 2015 at 10:02 pm

    This is super interesting, Irene. Once again, I’ve learned something I didn’t know. Love all the pics from your tour. It’s amazing how old some of the hutongs are. We can only hope that they won’t all disappear.

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      June 17, 2015 at 8:11 am

      Travel sure broadens our experience and understanding, doesn’t it?

  • Reply
    Jackie Smith
    June 17, 2015 at 9:19 am

    This is great and reminds me of the Portuguese ‘colony’ of remaining homes tucked away in Mumbai.

  • Reply
    santafetraveler
    June 17, 2015 at 12:56 pm

    Thanks for writing about the hutongs. I don’t know anything about Beijing except that it’s over-crowded, very vertical and smog-filled. Great to know that for now, these neighborhoods have survived. Wonder if the gentrification will save them.

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      June 17, 2015 at 1:53 pm

      I hope so; I think the government is paying more attention to their historical significance, too.

  • Reply
    Rob
    June 17, 2015 at 9:10 pm

    It’s easy to stay in a hutong home using Airbnb. We did just that recently and it was a truly fascinating five day experience. I recommend Cindy’s place: https://www.airbnb.com.au/rooms/128496

  • Reply
    Nancie
    June 19, 2015 at 3:45 pm

    The hutongs are an interesting side of Beijing. I enjoyed meandering through them a few years ago in Beijing’s +40C summer heat! I took a great cooking class in one that has been totally renovated.

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      June 19, 2015 at 5:29 pm

      Sorry about the heat…especially in the kitchen! Must have been a memorable experience~

  • Reply
    Suzanne Fluhr
    June 20, 2015 at 9:34 pm

    The hutongs are a side of Beijing about which I knew virtually nothing before reading this blog post. Did you feel that you were intruding while walking though the neighborhood? I wouldn’t want to go without a guide who probably knows about which hulongs welcome tourists. Using Context Travel sounds like a good solution.

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      June 20, 2015 at 9:48 pm

      Good question! It didn’t feel intrusive at all but we tried to be respectful. Having a Chinese speaking guides was great, too. She knew where to take us and what to see.

  • Reply
    Anita @ No Particular Place To Go
    June 21, 2015 at 3:51 am

    This was a very interesting post and a fascinating glimpse into an ancient way of living. It’s amazing to think of people living in this way for so many centuries, especially when compared to the American lifestyle of cross-country moves and long distance family ties.

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      June 21, 2015 at 10:26 am

      Yes, living in the same place for generations fosters deep roots—something many Americans miss out on.

  • Reply
    alison abbott
    June 21, 2015 at 5:46 pm

    I’ve taken two Context tours and think they do a great job incorporating the history of an area into the experience. Did you find the same on this tour Irene? I love the entrepreneurial spirit of using the buildings for new businesses and am glad to see that it is allowing some of the families to sustain the lifestyle of past generations.

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      June 22, 2015 at 8:24 am

      Yes, the Context Tour of the hutongs was great. Hope to use them in other countries, too~

  • Reply
    Antonio
    June 27, 2015 at 9:57 am

    Excellent pictures… ! After 2 years living in here, I still get surprises every day!
    Enjoy your travel guys! get into the local culture is the best way 🙂

    http://www.spontasia.com/hutongs-life-in-beijing-china-hutongs-culture/

  • Reply
    Sand In My Suitcase
    June 28, 2015 at 2:08 pm

    These hutongs look really interesting! And we have to admit, we didn’t know about them before. Hopefully no more will be bull-dozed to make way for modern construction…

    • Irene S. Levine
      Reply
      Irene S. Levine
      June 28, 2015 at 3:24 pm

      I worry, too, that they are vulnerable to developers in a society that has become so capitalistic.

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