Real Estate Showdown: Beijing Hutongs vs Shanghai Lane Houses

Real Estate Showdown: Beijing Hutongs vs Shanghai Lane Houses
Apr 28, 2015 By Trey Archer ,

The hutongs of Beijing and the lilong lane houses of Shanghai are the most iconic architectural housing styles in their respective cities. No trip to China’s capital is complete without a rickshaw ride through the hutongs, and tourists traveling through the Pearl of the Orient can’t take their fingers off their cameras when strolling the lane-house lined promenades of the former French Concession.

Recently, developers have begun to remodel and upgrade the hutongs and lane houses to meet 21st century standards. And when you mix modern luxuries with a traditional facade, foreigners and locals alike flood the scene for a chance to live in a truly unique environment. Luckily for me, I’ve lived in both the in hutongs of Beijing and lane houses of Shanghai, so if you can’t decide which one is right for you, here are my personal views on the subject at hand.

Historical Background

A hutong is a long lane or alley formed by the rows of traditional one-story, four-cornered courtyard houses or siheyuan. 

Hutongs are most commonly found in northern China, but Beijing is the birthplace of them and easily the most popular hutong spotting destination. They arose in the capital during the Mongolian dominated Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) as a form of modern housing units, and the word hutong actually comes from the Mongolian word hottog (which means water well) since these alleys were also where the local residents could pitch drinking water.

Courtyard homes used to be spacious, but after the 1949 revolution the dwellings became overcrowded and many homes were subdivided to fit more individuals. This caused many to coin the hutongs as slums. Nowadays, the government is sadly bulldozing the “slums” to make way for fancy shopping/tourist complexes, but there are still a few masterpieces remaining and plenty of rooms to rent out in remodeled (and non-remodeled) hutong courtyard houses.

Lilongs are three-story apartment complexes with a fusion of Western and Chinese characteristics separated by north-south, east-west running alleyways.

Lane houses are unique to Shanghai and rose during the later years of colonialism (early to mid-20th century) when Western powers controlled sovereign concessions in the city. These one-of-a-kind apartments were mainly built by the French and were (and still are) found in the French Concession. Typically, each floor housed three families, all of whom would share a communal bathroom and kitchen.

Many lane houses are in bad shape, but they never underwent the mass destruction campaigns that happened to their counterparts in Beijing. But during the communist era, the lane houses also became more crowded and aged rapidly due to lack of funding and upkeep. These days, however, there are some beautiful remodeled apartments to be found and a few historic ones have been preserved for visitors to see.

As you can see, both hutongs and lilongs represent their respective cities. The hutongs of Beijing, being in the capital and cultural center of the Middle Kingdom, are quintessential Chinese with black-tile roofs, red glowing lanterns, cobble stone paths, and tranquil courtyards. In Shanghai, rot-iron balconies, scraggly gardens, and old, creaky, wooden staircases are the name of the game in lane house territories. However different they may be, both do have some common characteristics: you will undoubtedly find a plethora of rickety bicycles (but more scooters and automobiles as the years go by), funny purple and yellow work out equipment machines, yapping poodles, and of course old folks walking backwards wearing puffy pajamas.

Hutong Haunts

There are pros and cons to living in the hutongs. On one hand, you’re centrally located and a bicycle ride away from Houhai Lakes, the Forbidden City, and numerous up-and-coming bars, cafes, restaurants and music venues. There’s also easy access to the city since you’ll most likely be on the ground floor, and you can even get an entire courtyard to yourself! (perfect for summer BBQs).

On the other hand, many hutong houses still to this day don’t have private bathrooms, meaning you’ll have to use the communal one down the alley. If that isn’t considered an invasion of privacy, hutong residents live in very close proximity and are packed together like sardines; your life will quickly blend together with all your neighbors’ as you can hear every move they make and every step they take.

My favorite Beijing hutongs: the areas aroung Beiluoguxiang, and Baochao Hutong, and anywhere around Houhai Lakes.

Lane House Livin'

Lane houses also have good and not-so-good aspects. Similar to hutongs, most lane houses are in prime party-time real estate; there are tons of great bars, restaurants, and cafes to be found in the former French Concession. As for the houses themselves, they’re more private since they’re tucked inside a gated community, and being on the second or third floor also adds a layer of privacy (though you’ll still know which soap opera your neighbors are watching in the evenings). But perhaps the greatest bonus is that nowadays most lane houses have private bathrooms! Unfortunately, your own private toilet will clog on a regular basis along with the sink and other out of date tubes, and flooding and leaking can be a problem especially during the rainy season.

My favorite Shanghai lane house areas: around Changshu Rd, Shanghai Library and Jiaotong University metro stations, as well as Tianzifang.

Which is Better?

Both have their charms and flaws: If you’re more in to Chinese culture and history, go to the hutongs. If you want something a little more comfortable and Western, the lane house is where it’s at. Lane houses are more comfortable during the summer, more private, and are often better kept up on the inside. Hutongs are more comfortable during the water, more traditional, look awesome on the outside and promote a tight neighborhood community.

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Keywords: Beijing hutongs Shanghai lane houses housing in Beijing and Shanghai


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I cannot decide!

Apr 30, 2015 22:04 Report Abuse



These are two amazing housing types unique to Beijing and the pearl of the orient. Highly sought after, human scale, mix of architectural styles, many of them well preserved. They really makes these two cities even more special.

Apr 28, 2015 20:32 Report Abuse



So, the topic is once again been linked to FAKES! C'mon people,people, people! I am not poor, but yet I can't find myself rich enough to pay for imported genuine goods ,especially household stuffs, which one would be paying through the nose and not carrying them with us when we're done with our tenures here..Don't we find ourselves better off with the fake goods making our daily life comfortable as it is? Of course then there're stuffs we can't live on being fakes, therefore we should be paying attention to. Please, be reasonable to yourselves and the societies.

Apr 28, 2015 11:02 Report Abuse



If you can't afford a Rolex watch buy a Casio, Seiko, Timex....etc., they are just as accurate. There rarely is a monopoly on any product or service in today's business world. Manufacturers of fakes are thieves stealing other peole's name, not paying a cent for promotion. With China it is even worse when you're talking about fake oil (gutter oil), fake medicine (wall plaster medicine)...etc. For those knowingly buy fakes, they invariably are attempting to elevate themselves by pretending to be someone they are not, out of vanity not necessity. Being reasonable to yourself isn't an excuse to steal, lie, cheat, especially when it is done to satisfy vanity (customers) and greed (manufacturers).

Apr 28, 2015 11:43 Report Abuse



'...a rickshaw ride through the hutongs, and tourists traveling through the Pearl of the Orient...' i.e. Fake Pearl of the Orient. Old habits die hard, some kind of 'people' just have to steal. Google this phrase, there are better ways of making people laugh than being fooled by thieves. Didn't the author of this article know Hong Kong has been known, WORLDWIDE, as the Pearl of the Orient and there were good reasons behind this? Among them are, "In the crest, the pearl held by the lion indicates the small but precious nature of the Colony. .....It also recalls the romanticised phrase 'Pearl of the Orient' referring to Hong Kong." * On that note, China is effectively crowned as Fake of the Orient, also by the world. LOL

Apr 28, 2015 09:42 Report Abuse