The term ‘hutong’ has its roots in the Yuan Dynasty, coming from the Mongolian word ‘hottong’ meaning ‘well’. This root word stretches back to the conquest of Beijing (or ‘Dada’ as it was then known) by the Mongols. With much of the old city destroyed, a grand reconstruction was in ordered by Genghis Khan’s grandson, Kublai Khan, who had decided to make Beijing his capital. The resulting hutongs have been a staple of Beijing’s culture and environment ever since. While many of the city’s hutongs have been destroyed in China’s charge towards modernisation, the government has become increasingly aware of their importance to China’s cultural heritage and as such have been taking greater steps to protect them.
Life in the hutongs is at times immensely enjoyable but can often be something of a trial, particularly if you’re a stickler for hygiene. Not exactly the cleanest places to live in the world, Beijing’s hutongs are infamous for their streets strewn with rotting garbage and piles of rubble from either the latest construction (or often destruction) project taking place, and the smell of open sewage from their rather lightly maintained public toilets. While it would be wrong (at least in this writers opinion) to disregard the hutongs over these matters, a word of advice for any prospective settlers would be to make sure that your apartment has a functioning toilet inside. While one does have the option to go for the more ‘authentic’ experience of relying on outdoor toilets, I have yet to meet anyone who recommends the experience.
One of the undeniable attractions that the hutongs provide that no apartment block, however cushy, could hope to match is their communities. Given the smaller and more open environment that the hutongs provide, it becomes quickly clear that the people here are more attached to their neighbors here than in most places one would find in a major city. Walking home through the narrow grey streets one is regularly met with the sight of large groups of old men and women drinking, playing mahjong and generally having a good time in each others company (usually with a touch of baijiau to lubricate their tongues. While such sights are not unheard of in the rest of the city (indeed far from it), one is unlikely to encounter and be able to take part in this sense of community in one of the many drab, identical apartment blocks coating the city.
Speaking of drab, identical apartment blocks, one of the more obvious but nonetheless important draws of the hutongs is the visual charm they bring to the city. When one conjours an image of ‘China’ in their mind, the two options most are left with are the romantic images of the past, with their sloped roves, dragon statues and glowing lanterns, or the modern China of hideous and indistinguishable apartment blocks, barely visible through the toxic smog devouring the city. Well the bad news is hutong life provides no better a solution for the smog than anywhere else, but hideous? Far from it. While the grey bricks and dusty streets might not appeal to all, their is an undeniable beauty in these relics of a time gone by, even if many of them are mere reconstructions.
Another issue however is that while beautiful, the individual hutong houses are far from distinctive. I and many others have had to learn the hard way just how easy it is to get lost in the earthy charm of these neighborhoods only to suddenly realise that you are actually lost. This being the case, it might be an idea to try to make sure you explore any new hutongs in the day first, and if you have to visit them at night, maybe try dropping some breadcrumbs as you walk. While crime in the hutongs is rare (I’ve yet to hear of anything whatsoever happening first hand) it is not unheard of so make sure you know where you’re going if trying to navigate them by moonlight.
Another issue those living in hutongs often face is the hair tearing frustration of managing to get stuck in traffic whilst walking home. The hutongs are hundreds of years old so naturally they are not designed to be navigated by cars, let alone the diggers and other construction vehicles that one will occasionally encounter in them at night. Whilst this might sound like a minor inconvenience be warned, it is ever so slightly worse than that. When traffic attempts to pass through these streets it is usually a case of waiting thirty seconds for a car to pass, but if two cars come together from opposite directions or some cumbersome construction vehicle comes lumbering through only to get stuck by a tree, the solution can often take some time to materialise. Simply finding another route would sound like an obvious solution but most of these encounters happen at night (remember what we said about trying to navigate these places in the dark?), so this is often more tricky than one would immediately think. Whilst this pales in comparison to, well, an actual problem, it can be incredibly frustrating to come home to after a long day at work.
If one is considering moving into a hutong there are a few things they should be aware of. Firstly the rent situation is rather dire, this is hardly unique in Beijing which is currently undergoing an ungodly rent crisis but the situation is rather exacerbated in the hutongs thanks to the influx of foreigners and wealthy Chinese piling in to live in a more ‘authentic’ (there’s that word again) area. Not so long ago the Chinese were fleeing these buildings for the warm and comfortable embrace of the city’s modern apartment buildings but more recently they’ve become rather hot property. The amount of rich Beijinger’s willing to shed the cash necessary to renovate these homes, and the waves of foreigners flooding them in their attempts to experience the ‘real China’ (and accidentally gentrifying them in the process) has caused a rather unnerving spike in rent prices. As unfortunate as the gentrification of the hutongs is, it seems like now is the time to move in if the thought appeals to you, within a few years they could very well be out of reach.
For all of the inconveniences (and financial misery) that can accompany life in the hutongs, I would say that life is all the sweeter when experienced in them. With all of the stress, long hours and sheer noise that working here inevitably means, it is a wonderful thing to be able to remove oneself to such a different environment. With all of the seemingly inescapable hustle and bustle of modern life in Beijing, it is nice to end the day by returning home to a relaxing slice of times gone by, authentic or otherwise.
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