Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Notes from the Yanyue Hutong in Beijing

A grocery store at the Yanyue Hutong in Beijing, just a short walk from the Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City (or Palace Museum, as it is more officially called today).
Last Saturday, the Financial Times ran an article about the hutongs of Beijing, or more closely, about how the Prince of Wales's Foundation of Building Community is trying to help saving some of these for the posterity by trying to revive the craftsmanship needed for the restoration and upkeep of the buildings. Which is of course great, even if you would think there would be money and skills closer to home...
A young father with his daughter in one of the alleys in the Yanyue Hutong.

A gathering point near the police station (picture below) - I took these photos in the morning; the chairs and benches were filled with retirees when the sun came out in the afternoon.
 A street side garden with chillies, gourds and aubergines, still going strong in the end of October.

 Even the inner courtyards seemed to have gardens, as tops of trees and diverse edible climbers peeked above the walls. The ends of the tiles carry the round character of "shou" for longevity, and the half-round end tiles between the shou-character ones are in the form of a bat, which represents the wish for good luck.
Anyway, the article reminded me of the week in last October, that we spend living in the middle of one of the less know of these hutongs, in a small hotel built into one the historical courtyards (yes, we are "adventurous" like that; I'm always on the hunt for something a bit different, sometimes to my family's delight and sometimes - not). Luckily, this stay was a success; the tiny hotel was suitably historical and pretty (if somewhat difficult to reach with a taxi & difficult to get one from), the personnel extremely friendly and helpful, and the chef cooked us the most delightful meals and even arranged a birthday dinner complete with a cake and candles, when she heard that my youngest had her 12th birthday one of our days there.

Local police station from another time - it was difficult to believe that we were in the middle of Beijing, the capital of a country that so many are afraid will "take over" the world soon...

A gateway into a cluster of residential buildings - a wedding had taken place here recently; the symbols for "double happiness", a typical well-meaning wish for newly weds, were still hanging on both sides of the doorway.
Why a hutong, then? Hutongs could be described as low-rise courtyard house communities, that have been part of the traditional life and culture of Beijing and other old cities in China for hundreds of years. The word hutong means a lane or an alleyway, and comes from a Mongolian word for "a water well" - in the 13th century when Mongolian rulers took over China, they even imported their way to dig a well and then build courtyards with buildings to live in and lanes around them. These clusters of courtyard houses, often with finely decorated gateways, are called siheyuan. Despite being hundreds of years old,  a huge number of hutongs have been bulldozed to give place for modern housing - so many, that in 2003 the Human Rights Watch actually placed them on their watch list as an attempt to help their desperate residents. Today, some siheyuans have been snapped up by the new mega-rich of China, which means that the actual buildings are saved, but the communal life of the hutong is gone forever.

 An entrance and a glimpse into yet another cluster of courtyard houses - I wasn't brave enough to ask if I could go in to see more.

A local small business for steamed buns, sold piping hot from the back of the bicycle.
Wandering through the small alleys, I can understand how some residents gladly exchange their dwelling for modern apartments - many of the buildings were extremely run down and probably cold and draughty in winter and hot in summer. Electricity wirings seemed to be of questionable quality, and I would think that sanitation would be a problem, too, given the looks of the environment. But with right resources and skills, hutongs with their historic houses could be as pleasant to live in as they are charming. So I hope that not just the Prince of Wales's Foundation, but also their Chinese counterparts within cultural protection and heritage restoration get their act together, and work to save these living testimonies to Beijing's long history.

A more modern gate, again in the very auspicious color of red and with a lovely decoration above...

... presenting two magpies and cherry blossoms. Magpies represent both a happily married couple and are also seen as a messenger for good news. Coupled with the blossoms, a symbol for spring and good news, they together express a wish for "double good news or good fortune" - what a lovely welcome to a home.

Yet another narrow alleyway...

 And a gateway into what I think is a lush courtyard, complete with a persimmon tree full of fruit towering above the walls.

 And just one last picture, from the courtyard of our little hotel, filled with magnolias, wisterias and other flowering wonders. We might have to return in springtime some day. 

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