Beijing. A fascinating city, one that is thoroughly enjoyable to live in. But pollution can get even the most hardy of resident down, and like any big city, it can be overwhelmingly busy and hectic at times. Unsurprising for a city in excess of 21 million residents. But what arguably gives Beijing an edge over other similar sized cities, is being able to escape to the relative tranquility of the hutong areas. For those who are unfamiliar,
a hutong 胡同 is a straight, narrow, largely residential road that in large numbers criss-cross and comprise the old part of Beijing within the second ring-road. The buildings are mostly one-storey, some two-storey and most are painted uniformly grey. The second ring-road broadly follows the city walls which were demolished in the 1960s, therefore one could say that the hutong areas cover the central district of the city.
The hutongs are largely residential, and feel like ‘real’ Beijing with a strong sense of history and place, and this is one of the draws for tourists and residents alike. When I first arrived this was the area that I gravitated towards, and to this day it is still my preferred area to relax and explore. Wandering around the hutong area, it is normal to see retired Beijingers sitting outside their houses playing cards or mahjong, watching the world go by, and so it has a more laid-back and gentle pace than the more modernised areas of the city, where beeping horns and vast crowds are the order of the day.
There are many small shops where one can do daily grocery shopping, and some of the hutong areas have an abundance of tiny independent bars and restaurants, many acting as centres for the local art or music community. Away from the very touristy Nanluoguxiang 南锣鼓巷 they are mostly very small, modest bars and eateries, which often showcase a more creative scene that what might be found in the more upscale, modernised parts of the city. As an exception to the usually quiet hutongs, Nanluoguxiang, a long north to south hutong that is always extremely crowded, and to which tour groups were recently banned from, used to be seen as alternative and creative until it became the tourist haven it is today. Try going down there on a weekend and it will be barely navigable.
One of the last long-standing establishments in Nanluoguxiang showcasing Beijing’s creative folk scene – Cafe 69 – has just in the past week closed its doors. I remember my first time in Beijing, two and a half years ago, walking past here on a wintery afternoon and being taken by surprise at hearing Nick Drake’s melodic guitar notes drifting out of the doorway, something I was not expecting to hear in the centre of the Chinese capital. This was one of the last alternative venues, and Nanluoguxiang is now largely all souvenir shops, stinky tofu stands, expensive coffee, and even Starbucks.
When I first came to Beijing in 2015, something that stood out and impressed me was the huge diversity of hutong bars, live-venues, and eateries showcasing the creative or alternative side to the city. The creative scene is for many what makes Beijing the attractive place it is to live in, and is what makes Beijing such an incubator for musicians and artists living here. I lived in London before Beijing, and although London’s live-music scene is undoubtedly very good, there is something about Beijing’s that makes it even more attractive. On a personal level, I’ve been inspired to write music and perform much more in Beijing than I was in London. Perhaps Beijing is kinder and more nurturing to amateur musicians than the music bars of London.
However, as anyone currently living in Beijing will know, changes are being made to the hutong areas with businesses having to close, or buildings having to have doors and windows removed to conform to regulations. Stroll through many of the hutongs today, and you’ll be confronted by construction sites, one after another.
Just over the past twelve months, Beijing has seen more and more of these small independent hutong-based businesses shutting up shop. Many that are still operating in hutong areas that have
had doorways and windows removed and businesses closed down are having to employ ever-more inventive ways to stay in business. I know a particular bar that has a step-ladder to its window, and another shop has built a slide from its window with which to slide goods to the customer below, both due to loosing their doorway.
Fangjia hutong 方家胡同 is one of those popular hutongs that has recently seen massive change, with the closing down of many of its bars and small eateries, and the bricking-up of many of the buildings’ road-facing doorways. Piles of bricks have become a symbol of Beijing’s recent changes since when a hutong has been selected for work, piles of bricks are suddenly found dotted all along the roadside, before construction workers protected by security personnel move in and begin bricking up and pulling down offending structures.
Fangjia hutong in recent years has always been a place where people – in relatively small and manageable numbers – would go to eat and drink at its numerous small alternative establishments. Since the recent closing down of many of the businesses, and the bricking up of many of the bar and eatery doorways, some have been able to stay open, but operating either with a step-ladder to a window as an entrance, or because they have a rear doorway. People still visit Fangjia hutong, but undoubtedly in smaller numbers. Some businesses have managed to relocate to other areas, others have had to close down altogether.
As for the reason, I won’t speculate, but it is clear that there are big changes going on in many of the hutongs. Only time will tell what future changes take place, and how many other small quirky bar and restaurant businesses have to close as a result of the changes. As more and more places in the hutongs close down, the arts, music and independent food and beverage industries may be more likely to be operating from sterile identikit purpose-built venues with less emphasis on creativity or individuality. This is surely not a good thing, so we can only hope, and continue visiting those hutong-based businesses that are still going strong.