Published in Kerry Properties’ The Dress Circle May 2006
Five years ago the Beijing government re-built a public toilet in Little Ju’er hutong.
Private bathrooms are few in number so public toilets play a significant role in local life, and this one quickly became a focal point for the community, with residents inclined to gather there.
“After a while, there was so much furniture, and so many people there every night, that Wang Zhaoxin declared the formation of the “W.C. Julebu”: the W.C. Club. “Membership was open to all, although there were disputes over who should be chairman …,” wrote Peter Hessler, a resident of Little Ju’er, in a February 2006 article for the New Yorker magazine.
In hutong life much is communal, including the alleyways themselves through which vendors ply their wares and residents congregate to share various aspects of their days. Often one’s private life also falls into the realm of shared property, as Hessler found out when Teacher Peng, the local matchmaker, continually urged him, through the local bicycle repairman, to allow her to introduce him to Miss Right.
Over the years, hutongs and their courtyard houses, mostly built during the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties (1271-1911), have come under tremendous pressure from an inflow of population and temporary dwellings that were set up higgledy-piggledy.
The 1976 Tungshan earthquake saw refugees pouring into the city and taking up temporary shelter in courtyard gardens. Many stayed on, putting great strain on the amenities. There was a lack of sunshine and insufficient ventilation, drainage and basic sanitation.
Clearly something needed to be done and in 1987 the Ju’er Hutong Courtyard Housing Project pioneered a new approach to urban renewal in old Beijing that provided for the restoration and improvement of traditional courtyard housing and the avoidance of their wholesale demolition.
Led by Professor Wu Liangyong, a professor in the Department of Architecture in Tsinghua University and an academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Engineering, the project has won several awards at the national level, a gold medal by the Asian Architects Regional Council Award for Architecture and a UN World Habitat Award.
In his book “Rehabilitating the Old City of Beijing: a Project in the Ju’er Hutong Neighbourhood”, Prof Wu makes a fervent plea to halt the tide of demolition and offers a new direction for the planning and development of Beijing.
An important aim of the project was to retain the social fabric and atmosphere of hutong life. It was therefore not a blanket restoration but an organic process of appropriate renewal and replacement that respected the vibrancy and charm of a living neighbourhood.
The better quality dwellings were retained and restored, while the worst ones were replaced with new dwellings that were in harmony with local design and layout. Based on the success of the Ju’er Hutong project, a substantial area of Beijing is also under planning and design.
Hutong comes from the Mongolian word ‘hottog’ meaning ‘water well’; which is appropriate, because it is around water sources that people tend to gather and build their homes. During the time that hutongs were built, the Emperors planned the city such that the royal palace or Forbidden City was located in the middle with the hutongs and their courtyards fanning out in grids from the centre.
The east and west sides of the Forbidden City were reserved for high-ranking officials, imperial kinsmen, aristocrats and wealthy merchants who lived in ‘regular’ hutongs that were built close to the palace in an orderly fashion. Their quadrangles were usually constructed with beautifully carved and painted roof beams and pillars, and would have two courtyards, one in front and another in the back.
Smaller, more simple and crude hutongs, meant for the ordinary folk, were located far to the north and south sides of the palace. These were often minimally built with small gates and low houses. Usually one family of two to three generations would live in one courtyard but, among the poorer folk, it was not unusual to find several families living together in one courtyard.
Hutong design adhered to traditional feng shui principles: they were built along the east-west or north-south axes, with main doors facing the south, in order to take in more sunshine and resist the cold winds from the north.
Hutongs have long held a special place in the heart of many Beijingers. Many locals can wistfully recall their hutong childhood with nostalgia and hutongs have been romanticised in China’s numerous great novels, operas, plays and films – a testimony to the degree of meaning, vibrancy, tenderness and colour that they command in the minds of the writers.
Distinguished novelist and playwright Lao She, used the memories of growing up in a hutong as the backdrop for his novel “Four Generations Under One Roof”. His epic 1957 play “Teahouse”, which spans 50 years and brings together characters from the different historical periods to discuss the social problems of their day, was set in a teahouse, also within a hutong community.
And then there are the unusual ones that belong in a hutong book of records. Among them is Dongxi Jiaomin Lane, which at 6.5 km, is the longest hutong in Beijing. On the flip side, Yi Chi Street (this now belongs to Meizhuxie Street) is the shortest, at a little more than 10 m. The honour of being the oldest belongs to Sanmiao Street, which is about 900 years old. Qianshi Hutong near Qianmen has the narrowest section, which is a mere 40 cm wide, and Jiudaowan Hutong, far from being straight like most hutongs, has 19 corners.
Traipsing through Beijing’s remaining hutongs is a popular tourist activity. Highly recommended for its scenic value is the Shichahai area with its three lakes, the Front Sea, Back Sea and the West Sea. Among the historic worthies here are the Bell and Drum Towers, Prince Gong’s Mansion and many hutongs. A typical hutong tour usually includes a ride in a pedicab and sometimes a visit to the courtyard home of a Beijing family.