Beijing Hutong

Have the wells of hutong all gone dry under the harsh sun of beijing city planning?

Seven hundred years ago, a Chinese scholar by the name of Liu Bingzhong conducted city planning for the Mongol’s capital; Beijing. Scholar Liu divided the city into inner, centre, and outer Beijing, and transformed Beijing into a modern capital at the time, both orderly and grand, bustling and vast. Businessmen, tourists and foreign students from around the world traveled to and fro among the shops, government buildings, schools and local residences. They stepped on the green bricks and black stones that laid the roads, connecting the grey walls on the two sides which have been combined as a term: HuTong.

In the Mongolian dictionary, “hotog” stands for “water well”. The well is the source of life for a city. Only in the cities with wells would there be residents, and the roads to connect the lives: hutong. Hutong had another name at the time, which was “fire alley”. Normally these are just paths for pedestrians, but in case of fire disasters, these roads can stop the spreading of the fire.

Inside the hutongs, many historical stories are buried. Outside the hutongs, memories of the past linger. Slowly counting the brick walls with traces of the past, it is inevitable that one would be touched. With oneユs fingertips, history and reality become connected in a spark. The nostalgia that creeps out of nowhere could then be felt.

The Chinese opera house at the front door once played the nostalgia of love and hatred behind the kaleidoscopic masks. The big red lanterns hanging near the gates inscribed the flickering and lingering love stories. The shadow of glass factories, incense pots, peach wood combs waited for a pair of hands to brush away the dust.

In the present times, some of the old signs may be given a new face sometimes, but still they hang at the hutong alleyway. The ancient bricks and stones are falling into bits and pieces, disappearing in the wind. Plying the hutongs are tricycles bearing the sign of “Go to Hutong” at the back, with Chinese and foreign tourists coming to Hutong for its name. The Court Yard inside Hutong has largely been renovated into bars or restaurants, with “Welcome” signs hanging on the door. There are yet more hutongs being torn down under the blast of construction trucks, and many now bear a huge sign saying “To be torn down”.

Beijing is now being engulfed by high-rises. Hutongs have become the sacrifice of city planning in the new century. Beijing people are only learning about the hutong culture from photo exhibitions and cultural centers, as is now happening at this moment of intersection between history and modernity.

Published in Issue 10 STREET, 2004