Monday, June 17, 2013


Hutongs are a big part of historical Chinese culture. A hutong is a narrow alley or street between courtyard-style homes. Neighborhoods were developed by connecting multiple hutongs and homes together. Now the term applies to neighborhoods of this style.

In the past a hutong was the lowest level of housing establishment. But they were clean, often thriving, neighborhoods. In the early twentieth century the living conditions all over China worsened and many of the courtyard-style homes were subdivided to hold multiple families. Extensions and additional rooms were built everywhere with whatever materials were available. The living conditions deteriorated.

They do represent a large part of China's history so many of them have been designated as protected areas. Unfortunately, it look like they have been preserved at their lowest state. They are keeping hutongs alive to "protect their heritage," but are effectively creating slums in the middle of a modernizing city.

Our amazing lunch was served by a resident of a large hutong in Beijing. So after lunch we walked around and learned the history of hutongs. The area is very large so we took a pedicab to see a larger part of it.

Our enthused driver
Many of the houses do not have running water so public facilities were installed in the 1950's. Like most of my experiences in China it was a very dirty bathroom - two stalls with drop toilets (not Western-styled) and one shower stall with no curtain. The toilet I used was just a large hole in the ground with ceramic "bowl". A permanent Port-a-Potty. We met a teenager named Alice that explained about daily life in hutongs and her experiences growing up.
A market

Always a sucker for a cute dog
Medical facility
Home decorations are a way to display status and rank in the neighborhood. Like every other building in China, it is done with care and attentiveness to Feng Shui. One house in the hutong housed a prominent military official. His family has lived there for generations. Outside the door are a pair of stone markers. Circular drums represent military. Square shape means civil service. Above the door are four blue posts that represent his wealth. Four posts, the max, is a wealthy family.

We stopped in a cleared square (where a house had burned down a few decades earlier) to find a group of seniors playing cards and majong. Alice did not know the rules of the game, but we stopped and watched for a bit.

We met with a kung fu master and teacher who lives in the neighborhood. He attended and teaches at the same school where Jet Li (yes, a friend, he said) learned kung fu. His son teaches kung fu in Houston, Texas. He did not speak any English, but through Alice we were able to ask many questions and learn about his life. He hopes to someday make a trip to the United States. He started training when he was five and trains for six hours each day. And he never wants to stop doing kung fu.

In his courtyard (about 4ft x 4ft), he had a small water feature with clover. I quickly did a scan to find a four leaf clover (on my Bucket List). The kung fu master and his wife asked what I was looking for. I had to explain that a four leaf clover was rare and considered lucky if found. This fascinated the master and his wife and they began scanning the fountain to locate a lucky clover.

After a fun afternoon of many laughs and sharing experiences we had to leave. So we said goodbye to Alice and her hutong.

Then it was back to the airport for our next city in China (yes, all these posts were in two days). We said goodbye to our amazing guide. Off to the mountains (and out of the pollution) we go! 

Sherry, a perfect Beijing guide


  1. Are you going to let your mother be the hutong man?

  2. Bwahahaha! I laughed for a minute straight.