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A vegetable vendor pushes a three-wheeled cycle through a hutong in Beijing; the lower cost of living in the hutongs has been a driving force behind the explosion of enterprises here.

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Beijing's back alleys beckon to travelers

  • Article by: Chaney Kwak
  • Washington Post
  • April 19, 2013 - 11:44 AM

Beijing is famous for a palace that’s a city unto itself, a Great Wall once purported to be visible from space, and architectural experiments by design giants such as I.M. Pei and Zaha Hadid. Traversing one city block can mean a hazy hike between megamalls and rows of traffic congestion; standing in Tiananmen Square is an exercise in humility, its vastness a reminder of how insignificant we are in this crowded world.

But the imposingly scaled side of Beijing fades into the gritty beige air as I stand in the middle of a maze created by the city’s old hutongs, or back alleys. In the narrow space that runs between the chipped brick walls of one-story dwellings, a scrappy kid kicks around a dusty ball while a mutt watches and yawns; a vegetable hawker pedals leisurely by, pulling a full cart while belting out Mandarin tunes.

Beijing used to have many such intimate neighborhoods brimming with courtyard mansions that were eventually partitioned into apartments for the proletariat. Today, skyscrapers sprout over the city like weeds, and beltways proliferate like age rings, plowing over these traditional communities. But in the central Gulou area, an enclave of sloping eaves and winding hutongs has escaped the ubiquitous bulldozers, defying the Chinese capital’s growth spurt.

That these hutongs have maintained their ancient anatomy doesn’t mean that the area is ossified in the past, however. Following a fortuitous tip from a Shanghai fashionista, I find the avant-garde boutique Wuhao, tucked inside a series of stately courtyards. Its red door is unmarked except for a bilingual sign that reads, in English, “Politely refuse visiting, please don’t disturb.”

I knock anyway. Soon, an elegantly shawled employee is escorting me around the grounds, explaining that China’s last empress once lived in the compound. Moving through the villa, which was restored in 2010 and now houses the boutique, I take in the contemporary furniture, the couture and the accessories by Chinese and overseas designers that Empress Wanrong certainly never owned.

A hand-sized ceramic skull wearing a gold crown adorns a bookshelf, while a wheeled wooden crate has been transformed into a closet full of bright dresses. Beneath a canopy of lush bamboo foliage stands a bench of aerodynamic design. Conspicuously missing are price tags, so presumed is the wealth of the clients, most of whom are members of the growing Chinese upper-middle class.

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Just beyond the gates of Wuhao, a woman wearing pajamas and plastic slippers walks past, dragging her feet. A few steps away, two hunks of raw meat hang from the rusty bars of a window. The juxtaposition heightens my anticipation for other surprises. After all, isn’t the allure of travel the possibility of being transported to an unexpected universe at a moment’s notice?

Another open gate affords me a glimpse into the ordinary lives of those who haven’t benefited from China’s economic resurgence. There are no designer indulgences here: Instead, a footpath barely wide enough for two people leads me past the tiny living quarters that numerous families have constructed in the once-grand yard. A rusty oil canister leans against a wall, while a broken umbrella swings beside an empty picture frame that’s hanging outdoors. At Wuhao, a single designer item might cost as much as all the possessions of one of these families.

Perhaps the lower cost of living in the hutongs has been a driving force behind the explosion of enterprises here. The rent is cheap, “so it gives people a chance to experiment while allowing the neighborhood to grow organically,” says Shannon Bufton, the Australian architect who co-owns Serk, an airy space on Beixinqiao San Tiao Hutong that has doubled as a bike store and a watering hole since opening in June 2012. “Beijing is crying out for creative people. Chinese consumers have disposable income.”

Bufton is hardly alone in infusing the Chinese capital’s quaint nooks with youthful optimism. The past couple of years have seen an influx of globally minded entrepreneurs opening pint-size bars and discreet boutiques.

In 2010, American Carl Setzer’s Great Leap stamped Doujiao Hutong with the surefire mark of hipsterdom: a microbrewery. Meanwhile, Rose Lin Zamoa transformed her private kitchen into the Caribbean eatery Jamaica Me Crazy in Cheniandian Hutong last October, just as the Taiwanese studio Good Design Institute opened its first store in Baochao Hutong.

At the end of a trash-strewn passageway off Baochao Hutong, I find the boutique hotel Orchid, opened two years ago by Canadian Joel Shuchat. Once I get buzzed in through the frosted door, I’m in the fragrant lobby that doubles as a chic bar, populated by men in skinny jeans and women in vintage-ish attire. For the first time since landing in China, I’m the only Asian in the room.

Shuchat has an encyclopedic knowledge of all the internationally owned businesses in the area. Baochao Hutong “used to be exclusively residential,” he says almost wistfully. Now, “tons of businesses have evolved.”

While Baochao Hutong, with its mom-and-pop enterprises, remains relatively low-key, it’s showing signs of imminent gentrification. Shuchat must know that his own hotel and its Western guests herald the force that may destroy the very authenticity that his establishment touts as its appeal.

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Dusk settles over the street as I make my way down Nanluoguxiang, a popular hutong that has become a cautionary tale for many. Jam-packed with teenagers walking arm in arm and tourists toting cameras, the thoroughfare has a strange feel of both a mall and an open-air museum, with tacky galleries, souvenir shops, fast-food joints and crowded cafes occupying impeccably refurbished traditional buildings. Completely absent is the cozy, rundown feeling of residential hutongs.

Ironically, it’s this commercialization that has ensured the survival of Nanluoguxiang, says Yuan Yuan, a 31-year-old Beijing native. Together with her boyfriend, Omar Maseroli, she runs a year-old Bolognese trattoria named Mercante in Fangzhuanchang Hutong, just 10 minutes, but also a world away, from the bustle of Nanluoguxiang.

“We’re trying to turn the hutong into something modern that can work in today’s Beijing, so obviously it has to become commercial in some way. At the same time, we want to keep the neighborhood in its shape,” Maseroli says.

In January, Yuan says, the government announced yet another planned session of chai — the word meaning “to tear down” that has become synonymous with razing hutongs — in an adjacent area.

People like Maseroli and Yuan are walking a tightrope. If their enterprises become too successful, the hutongs will become carbon copies of Nanluoguxiang — chain shops squeezing out the original inhabitants and atmosphere. But if these winding paths and old quadrangles remain as they are, the development-hungry city may haul out the wrecking ball.

Either way, change seems inevitable.











 

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