The Last of Beijing’s Hutongs

My first experience in China was for a two-month internship with the American Chamber of Commerce in Beijing. Knowing that I would be somewhat overwhelmed as a nineteen-year old, on my own in China, with a second-grader’s proficiency in Chinese, I chose to live in an Airbnb in an expat area called Sanlitun. It had all of the comforts I’d feared would be missing from my summer in China—H&M, an English-language bookstore, pizza. It was unexpectedly easy-living. But after two weeks in what was essentially New York, I decided it was time to graduate and experience what I thought was the real China.

Using Airbnb once again, I found a heavily-refurbished lofted hutong 胡同 apartment. I chose to stay hutong after reading about the historic courtyard residences in a book about an American-born Chinese woman coming to China for the first time and staying with her Beijing relatives in their vast courtyard property. I would soon learn from curiously peering into neighbors’ windows and from reading a very different book about hutongs, Michael Meyer’s The Last Days of Old Beijing, that hutongs had lost their luster. My Airbnb hutong was nothing like the homes of most Beijing hutong-dwellers.

Flash forward to last week, when our Davidson in China group traveled to Beijing, and one of our activities was a tour of a hutong neighborhood. Our tour guide prefaced this tour by saying that hutongs were once a symbol of grassroots Beijing upper-class lifestyle that existed outside of the imperial city, but are now seen as a symbol of national shame. Most hutongs today accommodate multiple families, and do not have modern heating or plumbing. According to our guide, most have been poorly maintained and expanded, often with whatever building scraps residents have found. Over the past decade, as China seeks to earn its reputation as an advanced and modern nation, the CCP sees hutongs as a stain on its image. Many have been torn down and what maintenance is performed is not done with preservation and restoration in mind.

Despite the party’s view of hutongs, they are still an object of fascination for many tourists. As Beijing begins to look more and more like the cities of the developed world, and wide roads and skyscrapers replace courtyard homes and alleyways, hutongs present tourists with the quintessence of China that they’ve read about in books and seen in movies.