Most tourists who come to Beijing will not leave without having visited some of the hutong areas. Hutongs are alleys formed by lines of traditional courtyard residences and this is what all of Beijing used to look like until around 1949 when with the founding of the People’s Republic of China many of the old hutongs of Beijing disappeared and were replaced by wide boulevards and high rises. More recently, some hutongs have been designated as protected areas in an attempt to preserve this aspect of Chinese cultural history. They form the heart of Old Beijing and quite frankly, are one of the things I like best about this city.
Some old pictures of Beijing I found on the internet and which show what Beijing used to look like – hard to believe but true…
Now, you might realise that the hutong houses are all grey. The reason therefore is that color in the old society was an imperial privilege. The only thing people were allowed to decorate was their entrance gate. But even here people had to follow some strict rules: only very high people were allowed to use red color (the imperial color) for their gate, green gates were for those who were a little bit higher and normal people used black gates. However, nowadays almost all courtyard gates are red. This happened when the Communists took over in 1949 and when red became the new black :). These gates were there to show the status and the wealth of the family – and apparently there is/was a saying in Chinese that for marriage the gates should be in balance. These days one could say that the cars are the new gates of the family, which is why you hear of so many people who live in tiny shabby flats but own a BMW.
One of the most fascinating stories I have heard about the hutongs is the story of the Drum and Bell tower.
The Drum and Bell tower had a very important function: They controlled the rhythm of the city. Unlike bell towers in the West these structures were totally silent throughout the day. They would only be used when the sun went down to indicate that all the gates throughout the city would be closed and people had to stay inside. At sunrise they would be used again to announce that all gates would be open again. Apart from the big gates throughout the city all the small hutong alleyways had their own gates – in the inner city alone you had more than 1000 such gates and they would be closed for the night as well – so you had small designated areas defined by the gates. These days the Drum and Bell tower is a tourist attraction. (by the way, these wonderful stories and many more can be heard when taking part in a tour organised by the fantastic guys from Beijing Postcards)
Nowadays one of the most well-known streets in a Hutong area, called Nanluoguxiang can get rather packed, especially during summer time. Apparently, the popularity of hutongs amongst Chinese only started around 10 years ago – whereas before many Chinese viewed old as inferior and new as superior, these days Nanluoguxiang is one of the main tourist attractions and also – surprise, surprise, a shopping paradise.
Nevertheless, as with most places, you only have to take a turn or two and you find yourself in an almost deserted but not less beautiful area. As we all know, people are just a bit like sheep…
Many expats prefer living in a refurbished hutong style house – obviously the ones which already have a toilet and where you do not have to use the public bathrooms (by the way we are talking about public bathrooms where the toilets usually do not have any doors – see picture below) but rental prices are often incredibly high.
Another famous area surrounded by hutong style houses is Shichahai. Shichahai includes three lakes (Qian Hai, meaning Front Sea; Hou Hai, meaning Back Sea and Xi Hai, meaning Western Sea). Obviously it is also a main tourist destination but also a nice hangout spot for locals. Some parts around the lake are also super crowded but again, if you just venture off the beaten track a bit you can still find some peace and quiet.
There are also loads and loads of bars around Houhai lake, ALL of them with life music and ALL of them pretty much offering exactly the same thing…anyway, as can be seen by the guy in the second bar – it is still possible to have a good time 😉