New Life in Old Beijing, Part I

Great Leap Brewery in Doujiao Hutong

It’s the third day of the Chinese New Year and Beijing is taking a break. Traffic has unjammed itself, department stores are shuttered and bursts of fireworks cut through the cold, dry air. As my taxi passes over the Second Ring Road, the streets are quiet until the Gulou comes into view. It’s an imposing, 727-year-old tower with vermillion walls and sweeping rooflines. Originally built to house a collection of drums, it now serves mainly as a riposte to the concrete tower blocks that have come to dominate much of Beijing. This neighbourhood is different, consisting of low-slung, grey-walled courtyard houses arranged along alleyways known as hutongs.

I climb out of the taxi and cross the street, plunging myself into a crowd of hawkers selling sugar-glazed fruits and barbecued eggplant. Families pass by, gawking at quirky designer t-shirts hanging in shop windows; a cyclist rings his bell as he negotiates around a group of friends. I am standing on Nanluoguxiang, a narrow row of shops and cafés that cuts through some of Beijing’s oldest hutongs. On this otherwise quiet February night, it seems like the whole city has come here to shop, snack and stroll.

“When you walk through the hutongs, it’s a nice atmosphere, an interesting mix of tourists and Beijing people who have been living there since childhood,” says Michel Sutyadi, a German-Chinese designer who runs NLGX, a lifestyle brand inspired by Nanluoguxiang.

Beijing might be the capital of the world’s most populous nation, a sprawling city of 20 million with a centuries-long history, known to the rest of the world for its vastness, off-the-charts smog and the blow-out bash that was the 2008 Olympics. Look past the vastness of the Forbidden City and the traffic-choked ring roads, however, and you’ll find the surprising truth about this northern capital: Beijing is a disarmingly down-to-earth place, where imposing boulevards give way to back streets filled with bicycle peddlers, ancient courtyard houses and endless small discoveries.


Inside the Shijia Hutong Museum

“There are cities where what you see is what you get. Beijing isn’t one of those,” says Aric Chen, who ran Beijing Design Week before taking up his current post as architecture and design curator of Hong Kong’s M+ museum of visual culture. “It’s a city that has these incredibly grandiose buildings, but the shiny façades are really just that. It’s beyond that you see the real city. The first time I went to Beijing, I was completely lost, confused, confounded, in awe, slightly terrified. But what was clear was that it is a city that takes time to get to know.”

A friend once told me that great cities are places rooted in some kind of existential conflict; in the case of Beijing, it’s a battle between the shiny façades and the city behind them. In recent years, huge portions of historic Beijing have been swept away for new tower blocks and shopping malls with an anywhere-in-China feel about them. Many hutongs are marked with a distinctive character: cai, which means “demolish.”

“Nanluoguxiang is one of the few streets were all the side hutongs are still intact,” says Sutyadi, and when he and his friend Ed Hung launched NGLX six years ago, they saw it as a way to make a statement in support of the old Beijing. “Our very first design said bu cai – ‘do not demolish’,” says Sutyadi. “We wanted to preserve the hutongs and do something new with them. Bu cai is still one of our most popular designs. A lot of people support the message.”

After all, the hutongs, with their traditions and everyday architecture, are Beijing’s most tangible connection to a long and storied past. Despite its unlikely location—landlocked, arid, freezing in the winter, sweltering in the summer and besieged by sandstorms in the spring—people have lived here for more than 3,000 years. The city owes its current prominence to the Mongols, who made Beijing—then known as Dadu—the capital of the newly-established Yuan Dynasty in 1271. Earthen walls were built in a square and streets were laid out in a rough grid around the imperial palace, broken only by a string of man-made lakes that supplied the city with water.

Inside the grid is where the hutongs were built: narrow, wandering lanes lined by single-storey houses whose domestic life revolved around a central courtyard. Beijing was a horizontal kind of place, where life and land were inextricably linked. Even today, when you venture down a hutong, the city melts away and a kind of rural silence takes hold, broken only by the occasional bicycle bell and the sound of wind rustling in the trees.

“Every resident who lived in the city also lived in a park,” says architect Ma Yansong, who was born and raised in Beijing; his buildings are known for their undulating, organic forms. “All my memories in the city are in hutongs and the courtyards, in the space where you find nature.” In 2009, Ma designed the Hutong Bubble, a softly-contoured metallic structure attached to the exterior of a courtyard house located not far from Nanluoguxiang. The idea was to provide space for modern amenities (most hutong houses still don’t have toilets) while keeping the original house intact and poignantly reflecting the surrounding landscape.

Ma likes to quote Lao She, an early 20th-century novelist known for his use of the Beijing dialect, who wrote: “The beauty of old Beijing exists in the empty space between architecture.” That was illustrated to me five years ago, on my first trip to Beijing, when a friend took me to an old house to meet some more friends for breakfast. A handful of people had gathered in the courtyard. Among them was a slight man with high, rosy cheeks named Xiao Budian, who plucked a guitar while another woman played the xun, a kind of small, globular flute. Xiao is from Guizhou, a mountainous province in the far south of China, and he is a member of Shanren, a Chinese folk quartet. He launched into a captivating folk song that seemed perfectly at home with the rustic surroundings. Later, when I visited Xiao at his room in another courtyard house, on a chilly March night, he explained that he came to Beijing for its creative freedom and easygoing lifestyle. “You can do what you want here,” he said.

“There’s an incredible curiosity and openness in Beijing,” says Aric Chen. “There is something about the impossibility of the place that gives it a confidence.” He traces it back to the original 13th century plan for the city, with its man-made lakes, timeless courtyard houses and rigid, rational layout. “There is a certain solidity and will to be Beijing that has withstood all the trauma of the 20th century, which frankly continues today, with a lot of the pressures on urban redevelopment. You can really see the layers of Beijing. It really embodies China’s struggle with modernity. In some ways, its spirit remains pre-modern today, despite all of its ambitions of being a premiere world city.”

Some of that ambition has led to striking examples of contemporary architecture, like the CCTV Tower or the National Stadium, affectionately known as the Bird’s’ Nest. It has even produced some buildings that deliberately evoke the courtyards and alleyways of old Beijing, like Sanlitun Village, a pleasantly bustling outdoor shopping mall. But as the crowds on Nanluoguxiang attest, it’s in the old neighbourhoods where Beijing’s soul can be found.

Stay posted for more on the upsides and downsides of old Beijing’s transformation.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Thursday May 22 2014at 10:05 pm , filed under Architecture, Art and Design, Heritage and Preservation, History, Public Space, Society and Culture and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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