Saving A Way Of Life In The Hutongs Of Old Beijing
Business Traveler|June 2017

The hutongs of Beijing offer a glimpse into the magical and offbeat heart of China’s capital

Mark Graham

Beijing does monumental grandeur and epic architecture like no other city – it has the world’s largest palace, the world’s largest public square, the world’s most oddly-angled skyscraper. Yet beneath and between the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and the CCTV Tower are areas that are bereft of hyperbolic characteristics – in fact the hutongs of the Chinese capital are mostly renowned for possessing a scruffy charm and chaotic atmosphere.

These alleyways, where two oncoming cars must perform delicate, wall-hugging maneuvers to pass, are enclaves of tradition, where families live in self-contained courtyard compounds. The entranceways are generally a haphazard collage of rusting bicycles, sprouting cables, peeling paint and semi-feral cats; venture inside and there is a small cobbled courtyard with sides flanked by individual rooms, where entire extended families eat, chat and sleep.

The rough simplicity of the hutongs – and the fact that they are some of the last remaining neighborhoods of pre-boom Beijing – make them captivating places to visit. Many hutong homes have already been bulldozed, their occupants not necessarily needing much arm twisting to swap leaking and cold (or hot) hovels for new, high-rise suburban apartments. But plenty remain, including key zones where adventurous entrepreneurs have opened boutiques, restaurants, bars and hotels.

The Soul of the City

In modern Beijing, it’s possible to stay in a hutong hotel that lies a short stroll from the historical Drum and Bell Tower, or quaff a craft ale in a pub that is a two-minute walk from the Lama Temple and enjoy a gourmet meal in a Tibetan temple compound that dates back to the Ming dynasty.

The tiny Orchid hotel is run by Canadian Joel Shuchat. It is located in one of the more rambunctious hutongs, where the air might be filled with the bellowed sales pitch of a passing knife-sharpener, the clanking of pots and pans at the streetside noodle bar and the loud chatter of the pajama-clad local residents.

Yet pass through the doors of the Orchid and the mood is one of total serenity. It has 10 luxurious rooms and a rooftop bar-restaurant that is open to the public for lunch and dinner. On a sunny blue-sky day – and Beijing does have plenty of pollution-free spells, contrary to popular belief – there is a magical upper-deck view over the top of squeezed-together hutong homes and toward the heart of imperial Beijing.

“My fascination with the hutongs is the density and the sense of human scale,” says Shuchat. “If I choose to just watch what is around me something ridiculous will happen every time. There is one guy who I noticed the first time when he took out a French horn from his bicycle basket and gave me a toot. He has now upgraded to a proper trumpet and sits on the side of the street in his crappy pajamas shooting out a few notes.”

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