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Hanging on to the hutongs

The juggernaut of change is overwhelming the charming, ancient alleys of Beijing

Nanluoguxiang Hutong. Photo: iStockphoto
Nanluoguxiang Hutong. Photo: iStockphoto

This girl I met on Tinder a while ago first brought me here," confessed Michael, grinning, when I asked him how he had discovered Cellar Door, a bar in old Beijing, barely bigger than a broom-cupboard.

The two of us were on our own Tinder date, and Michael, who had lived in Beijing longer than I, suggested we go here. It was the middle of winter, and three months since I’d moved to China. Cellar Door was a lovely little space, filled with candlelight, its walls covered with postcards of music icons and lined with bookshelves. A self-service fridge near the entrance was packed with beer. Tucked away in Fangjia Hutong, it wasn’t easy to find. It was, in other words, the perfect hidden gem.

Despite the attraction of swankier districts like Sanlitun, hutongs,the ancient, winding alleys typical of the city, are where Beijing stores a lot of its charm. With some dating back to Yuan dynasty (1206–1341), they’re concentrated in neighbourhoods around the Drum and Bell Towers, Houhai lake, and the Yonghegong Lama Temple.

I went back to the Cellar Door often. It helped that the bar was surrounded by several other places I’d come to adore during my first few months of exploring Beijing. They were all located in the dense network of hutongs that I had spent many happy hours wandering around.

Fangjia had the dive-bar-and-live-music-venue Hot Cat Club, with hot pink couches. A short walk away in Baochao Hutong was Mr Shi’s Dumplings, with its beef-shiitake-pepper-cheese jiaozi, and Modernista, a bar with chessboard floors and a penchant for retro-music gigs.

The same neighbourhood also had the shiny Wudaoying Hutong, packed with boutiques and souvenir shops. This is often the first hutong that new residents of the city visit. They later learn to dismiss it as being “too touristy". Although it may lack the grunge quotient, this is where you go when you want to eat at “that amazing sausage place" that everyone knows, though nobody can remember the name.

Men playing Chinese chess or Xiangqi. Photo: iStockphoto

And these were only the better-known hutongs. Each time I wandered around neighbourhoods like Gulou Dajie, Nanluoguxiang and Beixinqiao Santiao—veined with scores of hutongs—I stumbled on to hole-in-the-wall dumpling and noodle places, indie music shops, or places like the weirdly awesome and cavernous Ball House bar, with interiors that resembled a dowager princess’ storage room. Other favourites included the Hani Gejiu restaurant, which serves the food of the Hani ethnic minority, and Zhang Mama, for its fiery Sichuanese. Capital Spirits exclusively served cocktails made with the ghastly baijiu, China’s famed sorghum liquor.

General public service announcement (PSA): Never try the “snake" baijiu.

But the appeal of the hutongs didn’t lie just in the restaurants and bars, it lay also in the history they held and the way of life they represented. On a walking tour, I learnt that the crumbling stone statues outside some of the homes had been erected after a member of the family passed the prestigious, and enormously difficult, Imperial Examinations. There were grandfathers playing xiangqi, or Chinese chess, trundling kuaidi (express delivery) carts used to courier online orders, and the communal hutong bathrooms, where you ended up seeing way more bare bottoms than necessary, but missed the second you were out of the country and had a full bladder.

Street food at a night market in Wangfujing in Beijing. Photo: iStockphoto

Beijing’s hutongs, I firmly believed, were the best thing about it. Sitting at Cellar Door with a friend one evening, we raised our bottles of Tiger beer to that thought.

It wasn’t quite a unanimous one though, as I discovered some months later. Cellar Door was shutting down, worried messages flashed across WeChat groups. It was to be yet another casualty of the furious demolition activity taking place all over Beijing’s hutongs as spring rolled in. Establishments were being torn down or having sections bricked up, with carts full of rubble blocking the alleys. Official notices on red banners hung across walls.

Modernista’s street-facing entrance was bricked up. So was Mr Shi’s Dumplings’. Rager Pies on Fensiting Hutong was gone, as was MoxiMoxi on Beixinqiao Santiao, along with the area’s trademark street-side lamb-leg restaurants. As Michael and I—now officially together—walked to the scene of our first date, the gloom in the once-lively hutong was palpable. “Oh, thank god, it’s not gone yet," we exclaimed as we got to Cellar Door. It was cold comfort though. The façade was unrecognizable, the entrance had been bricked up, leaving a tiny makeshift opening. The place looked even smaller than we remembered it. I was deeply sad that night. Within the next few weeks, this lovely bar would be gone, as would Michael—for the next few months at least, back to the US to finish the final semester of his exchange programme.

This frenzied wave of tearing down and bricking up isn’t new to the capital. Old-time residents tell me that every spring, the city gets overtaken with men in hard yellow hats generating piles of rubble. This past year has been different though, they say. The demolitions are more aggressive, with the government speedily uprooting unlicensed small businesses, and bricking up entrances that don’t meet guidelines.

Dumpling steamers. Photo: iStockphoto

In a bid to “beautify" (or as some rumours go, also control population by driving out the migrants who are employees or owners of the hutong businesses), the project is not only taking away beloved haunts but also chipping at the core of what makes the city special. Art projects on hutong life are being created, to document as much as possible before it all disappears entirely. What is Beijing going to look like five years from now? I imagine it will be a Sanlitun on steroids—a massive mutation of the glitzy central shopping district, packed with restaurants and pubs. Pretty, orderly, sanitized. It could be anywhere in the world.

This shift is a poignant reminder of the transient nature of this city of migrants. Its pace is exciting, but the constant flux also means giving up a comforting sense of familiarity in people and places. People arrive, put down roots, only to move elsewhere before you know it. There’s a goodbye party every few weeks.

When your favourite people are constantly leaving, and your favourite places keep closing down, what happens to your memories of a city as you knew it? Where do you find pockets of stability and rest to create memories if everything’s here today, gone next month?

I often wonder what that means for the concept of “home". Can you make a city home if you don’t know what it will look like a little while from now? And if you do, can you love it just the same, even if it doesn’t feel the same any more?

Dip into the ‘hutong’ life

Walk Beijing Postcards conducts a History of the Hutong walking tour into the dense network of ancient alleys around the Drum and Bell towers. Try excellent street food along the way (www.bjpost

Eat Dumpling steamers are fired up as early as dawn, serving pork-and-scallion or egg-and-chives baozi. Mr Shi’s Dumplings in Baochao Hutong has a huge variety. Try the goat cheese and assorted noodle bowls at Hani Gejiu, and the fiery Sichuanese at Zhang Mama, washed down with Yanjing beers. Try the chuanr (meat skewers) and jianbing (a crisp, savoury crepe) from the food carts.

Play Shops tucked inside the hutongs sell everything from musical instruments and vinyls to posters (my favourite find has been a massive map of ancient Beijing) and Mao Zedong memorabilia. Drop in at Modernista for a gig, attend a storytelling session at 4 Corners.

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