I exit the metro station at the Nanluguxiang stop and look around, searching for a sense of direction. A silver fence separates me from multiple lanes of traffic. I stare at the bicyclers, part in wonder and part in admiration. Traffic rushes by, leaving a trail of pollution, but the bikers keep peddling. Unaware.
I focus, and notice a woman looking right at me and pointing down the street. I look in the direction she indicates and notice a break in the fence and a pedestrian walkway. I nod to thank her and laugh at the fact that she knows where I want to go before I even know myself.
I follow the throngs of people and end up exactly where I want to be.
Nanluoguxiang Hutong offers a glimpse of old Beijing–a Beijing full of narrow, tree-lined alleys and single-story homes.
The alleys are the China I imagined: lanterns, red doors, and men who greet you with a smile as you pass their shop. Where I envisioned noodle shops, there are coffee shops and organic fruit popsicles stands. Still, the atmosphere invites you to linger over a cappuccino. Occasionally, you see men hovered over a mahjong game, and you are transported back in time.
The word ‘hutong’ is Mongolian for water well. Over 700 years ago, these narrow-alley neighborhoods were created around wells. The small homes opened to expansive courtyards, where families lived and worked in close proximity. They were the heart of Beijing life.
Twentieth century modernization has become the number one threat to hutongs. More than 1,000 properties were destroyed in the gentrification process leading up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Today, the government has developed a plan to ‘clean up’ the hutongs. The guidelines, which were released in April, forbid illegal construction and require that the courtyard properties have only one entrance. Those who are not in compliance are literally being bricked in. The government has stopped issuing and renewing commercial license, which has meant that many residents have been forced to close their shops.
This plan has received criticism from residents, many of whom are Chinese migrants. They say they haven’t been given proper notice to relocate their businesses, and they worry about their future.
I find a café in the Peking International Youth Hostel. From the outside, it resembles a floral shop, but inside the space is modern with sleek tables and comfy couches. I sit at a tall table near an open window and order a yogurt and a cappuccino. The breeze fills the air with the fragrance of flowers and offers a brief reprieve from the hot August days.
It’s easy to forget that I’m in China; everywhere I look I see and hear only Westerners.
I realize that the existing hutongs have also been lost. The noodle carts and food stalls have been replaced with craft breweries and hostels with young, hip, English-speaking staff.
I pay my bill and venture back out into the maze of alleyways. I think about time and change, as I walk the streets. I typically think of change as progress, as a welcomed part of life, but the hutongs are losing their culture, and as a tourist, I know that I play a part in their destruction.
Just as I am lost in my thoughts, I realize that I am also lost. I have walked far from the other tourists. Chinese men work to repair the brick design of the street. They have a pile of bricks and a large hole in the middle of the road. I watch them measure and carefully place each brick before setting the design with sand.
I watch them work for some time before I look up and notice that two elder men have joined me. They intently watch the men work. It’s possible they are critiquing their work, or perhaps they realize that they must come together to preserve what is left of their hutong.
Whatever the reason, I smile at them as I take my leave, and they smile back.