When visiting the Beijing Hutongs, it is like visiting a past era in a modern Chinese city; ‘Hutong’ means lane or alleyway. The name derived from Mongolia, where it means ‘water well.’
The Hutong lanes are home to connected courtyard houses that form neighbourhoods, with the individual houses having rooms that face onto a central enclosed courtyard, originally nobles and government officials occupied the houses with their status being indicated at the entrance with cylindrical, wooden lintels, or “doorstops,” indicating their importance. Interestingly the width of the street also had status influence with a 36-metre wide lane being a standard road, down to the smaller 9-metre wide lane being a Hutong.
Within the lanes themselves, space is limited; they are narrow by today’s standard, with transport mainly being by bicycle, with numerous lanes jam-packed with bikes, either stored or being ridden. On the wider lanes, vehicles can also navigate the confusion of people, bikes, and whatever else takes up space. Some lanes have cars parked hard up against a courtyard wall. Usually, with a car cover protecting it; wooden boards nestled against the tyres and wheels as a defence against the local animals that would use the wheels as an opportunity to mark its territory.
On our trip to the Hutong, we decided to travel by rickshaw from near Qianmen Street, the rickshaw driver becoming our tour guide showing us the multiple different lanes and roads within the Hutong. He mentioned that the government wanted to demolish many of the Hutong areas. However, six hundred have been set aside for preservation, with the occupants of the preserved hutongs not being permitted to change or alter their homes in any way without authorisation. Strangely, a few days later we were with a family that had obtained permission to modify their home within the Hutong district. We had taken the opportunity to have a lunch within their courtyard house, where we entered their home down a narrow alleyway, our host escorted us through a modest unroofed courtyard, past the kitchen where our host’s mother was feverishly preparing the cooked food, into a plain white painted room. It was a multiple purpose room, a dining room table occupying one part, in another corner, a bed, the occupant being asked to leave as we arrived. This room was obviously the main family room; it was sparse in its contents, just the minimum required, with a few scattered pictures hanging on the wall. A meagre existence, where the family made money from tourists wanting to experience the food they had prepared in the family home, and potentially the reason for the permission to enlarge the house.
The Hutong courtyard houses are home to young and old. They enjoy the living, the closeness to central Beijing, co-existing with a booming tourist industry with both rickshaws and pedicabs fighting for lane space. There is pressure on the Hutong environment. The government, along with some family members wanting other family members to move to the high-rise apartments for an improved quality of living, other residents accepting what they have in the district and staying put, all within a city environment of Beijing that is changing and modernising around them.