We had a very full day in Beijing, and after going to the Forbidden City (post here), we took a a pedicab ride around a Hutong neighborhood. I think this can sometimes be pretty hokey–and there tons of guys waiting there on bikes for tourists–but our guide was really personable and funny and it was very interesting. His English was good and he, I think, was a born a salesman or entertainer…even though there was nothing to sell. Our rates were also prearranged, so all we had to do was tip what we felt was appropriate. It’s definitely not “staged”, it is a real neighborhood, but I’m guessing what you see varies by who you get and what Hutong you go to. Our main guide in Beijing also grew up in Hutong neighborhood, so she provided some additional, interesting insight into the Hutongs.
A Hutong is really just a collection of narrow streets/alleys. And they are super narrow, with few cars. Most people get around on scooters or bikes. Cute, practical, and tiny neighborhood stores. In Beijing, particularly, the Hutongs are created by family houses with courtyards, known as siheyuan. These houses are mostly simple, but have a very decent amount of space in them, given the number of people that now live in Beijing. Most are passed down generation to generation. However, unsurprisingly, some are being remodeled and the Hutong neighborhoods have become luxury choices for ex-pats as well. It’s sort of the Beijing of yesterday; a peek into how many lived in Beijing before skyscrapers. I really thought it was fascinating, and I can totally see the attraction–it is a very peaceful respite from the Beijing of terrible traffic.
The Chinese government has been destroying Hutong neighborhoods and displacing families for further development, which obviously is very controversial. The Atlantic had a great article almost 5 years ago on this issue (also noting that, at that time, there was probably a ban on discussing and reporting Hutong issues in the domestic news). It does appear like conservationists, Hutong families, and other NGOs have made some strides in protecting these historic neighborhoods, despite the fact that many have already been destroyed. In addition, many of the old homes are in need of significant upgrades, including improved sewage systems and better insulation for Beijing’s winters. Work has started to preserve the historical architecture while installing needed improvements.
In one of the Hutongs, we also were taken to a woman and her aunt that do a traditional art of painting inside these itsy bitsy tiny little snuff bottles. I’m not sure if this was government arranged, but they were happy to talk (through our guide who was our translator), never even offered to sell us anything, and just wanted us to learn/enjoy. Given that I am not artistically inclined in the least, I found these tiny little intricate drawings inside the bottles pretty impressive and fascinating. The painter had learned the trade from her aunt, who had learned it from her grandmother.
Since the bottles are painted from the inside out, everything has to be done as a mirror. Considering I could never paint like this…even if it was paint by numbers…it’s so neat to see the very intricate designs, the pandas, the trees, etc. Considering I don’t use snuff, I wasn’t sure what I would do with one of them…other than have it collect dust as yet another knick knack. And I have a serious knick knack problem. Which I’m trying to fight. So no snuff bottles for me.
The Hutong was charming, and it would be fun to explore one on foot (with someone, beside me, who can actually navigate, because that just would not go well). It was an experience I didn’t really expect to enjoy as much as I did. And despite the very narrow, windy, confusing alleys, it was a pleasant change from the hustle, bustle and overwhelmingness of the rest of Beijing.