Why I ended up living in Beijing’s hutongs
9/11 has a different symbolic value to me. On that memorable day in 2001, with the horrifying images of the Twin Towers still in my eyes, I flew from Amsterdam to Beijing to embark on a new adventure as the Project Director of a 4 years EU-China environmental cooperation project.
In my work, I was immediately caught up in China’s contagious development drive – the enthusiasm, creativity, energy and vitality of the Chinese people and their eagerness to experience the outside world, induced by China’s reform and opening-up. It reminded me of the development boom in the 1960s and 1970s in The Netherlands, my home country, which had so much inspired me as a young planner/designer.
Not only China, but in particular Beijing turned out to be the place for me. It was not the first time I had visited Beijing, but you have to live a city to know it, and know it to own it. Beijing is China’s political, cultural and educational centre. I like the city because, despite its fast growth and big changes, it still has the Chinese culture in its veins.
Beijing’s spatial layout generally follows the north-south orientated checkerboard pattern of the ancient capital. That’s why native Beijingers will give you directions according to the compass direction: take the first to the North, then the second to the East. The cultural heart of the city is formed by Beijing’s famous hutongs, which reflect the culture of grassroots Pekingese. Hutongs are small lanes, giving passage to lines of courtyards (“siheyuans”), Beijing’s traditional homes. Typically, siheyuans are enclosed by single storey houses on all four sides, ideally with a gate at the south-east side, and built in a north-south orientation. One hutong connects with another, and siheyuan connects with siheyuan, to form a block, and blocks join with blocks to form a neighbourhood, also called a hutong (an old administrative division).
Over the last few decades, hutongs have rapidly disappeared as entire blocks of hutongs are levelled and replaced with high-rise modern buildings. This process has been partly halted by the Beijing government, which designated a number of them as protected areas. At the time we came to live in Beijing, most of the remaining hutongs were in decline, and many still are, with the rooms of what were originally one-family courtyards rented out to migrant workers by their impoverished owners or by government (who expropriated most of the courtyards during the Cultural Revolution). The hutongs were seen as slums without proper sanitation, with most residents dependent on public toilets. Nonetheless, my wife – who herself had experienced hutong life as a child spending summer holidays in the siheyuan of family friends – and I were both attracted by the unique traditional sense of community and street life. We used much of our free time to explore the hutongs, while, deep in our hearts, we hoped to run into an affordable siheyuan for ourselves. And we found one.
When we first entered the yard to see the owner, it was a mess with all kind of structures attached to decayed main buildings, and housing tenants. We had a brief discussion, and then I decided to buy. My wife looked at me, shocked. In this….? Yes, I answered. I couldn’t explain why - it was just the feeling that it was a good place. Later, when we were renovating the place, we heard from all sides — you made the right choice, the place has a good “feng shui” *.
As an architect, I realised that the siheyuan principles matched generic bioclimatic principles for a semi-arid climate. The north building (the main house) is orientated to the south allowing sunshine to enter in the cold winter season, while a huge tree shades the house as an umbrella during the hot summer. A soil layer under the roof tiles and the thick walls of the buildings regulates the in-house temperature. The walled courtyard with the gate house in the south-east corner protects against the dust storms which are common in spring time and which predominantly come from a north-western direction. But there was more to it.
Living in a hutong neighbourhood is like living in a village in the countryside. It is green, lush green, with the big old trees in the yards and along the lanes, full of bird life. And every now and then you can even spot a weasel. Away from the main streets with their intense traffic, it can be silent, silent as the grave sometimes especially at noon, for instance, when after lunch residents take a nap. In the early mornings and late afternoons, however, the hutongs are bustling with life.
Hutong community and street life is even more fascinating. The influx of migrants into the hutongs created a kind of multi-cultural society. It is a rich melange of rich and poor, of scholars and blue collars, and of locals and migrants. The government policy to better protect the hutongs, and securing owners’ and tenants’ rights, encouraged hutong dwellers to invest in the improvement of their houses. While many residents are becoming wealthy enough to move to comfortable apartments or even town houses, they prefer to stay in the hutongs. Also, the recent revival of the hutongs attracts new rich residents. Besides, more and more young white collar workers prefer to rent a room here, trendy as it is to live in Old Beijing - the old city centre, conveniently connected to an extensive bus and metro network.
Apart from native Beijingers, you find migrants from all of China’s provinces, with their often distinct dialects and customs, clustering themselves in certain pockets of the hutongs, and, interestingly, also in occupations, such as vegetable sellers, garbage collectors, toilet keepers, and so on. All day, vendors, loudly announcing their services, roam the streets on their tricycles, which nowadays are changing into e-tricycles. Also, as many hutongs are too narrow for car traffic, trucks are unloaded on the main streets and from there tricycle drivers distribute the goods in the hutongs.
All in all, it is a joy to live in Beijing’s hutongs. Not for one moment I have regretted my decision to settle in here. And looking at this vibrant community life, I wonder – aren’t they the key to a happier, healthier and more sustainable lifestyle? Rather than looking at hutongs as historic relics that should be preserved, I see them as great building blocks for a walkable and bikeable city, a development model for a more liveable Beijing.
Watch the Fate of Old Beijing - The Vanishing Hutong
* Feng shui - literally "wind-water" - is a Chinese philosophical system of harmonizing the human existence with the surrounding environment. The feng shui practice discusses architecture in metaphoric terms of "invisible forces" that bind the universe, earth, and man together. Historically, feng shui was widely used to orient buildings in an auspicious manner. Techniques incorporate the use of different elements to create balance and harmony.