[Video] The last few guardians of Beijing's hutong culture

While hutongs are a unique historical sight in Beijing, they are quickly disappearing as people move out and relocate to government housing with modern amenities. Those who remain are generally the older generation, while the look and function of hutongs is also changing. How much longer will hutongs last?
Yao Jianhua, one of the few old Beijingers who is still living in a hutong. (Photo: Li Shanyi)
Yao Jianhua, one of the few old Beijingers who is still living in a hutong. (Photo: Li Shanyi)

“Many people have moved out of our hutong; about three-fifths have gone. Most residents now are mostly over 60. There are very few young people.”

Yao Jianhua, a 65-year-old resident in a hutong in Beijing, shared with me the unique sights of the hutong, his words carrying a sense of pride with a tinge of poignancy.

Hutongs, or old alleys, are one of Beijing’s cultural symbols. Still, this landmark of the city with more than 700 years of history has undergone a huge change in the past decades amid Beijing’s rapid urbanisation. 

Government action

From the 1970s to the early 2010s, the hutongs situated in the heart of Beijing’s 2nd Ring Road have gone through a wave of large-scale relocation, with the total number of hutongs down sharply from 3,000 in 1949 to less than 1,000 in 2016.  

It was not until 2017 when the Beijing government said in its Beijing Municipal Master Plan (2016-2035) that there would be no more demolishing of the old city that Beijing hutongs were spared from large-scale relocation and there was a clear shift to cultural preservation and restoration.

Yet, as opposed to demolishing and rebuilding, the tougher challenge lies in preserving these old structures. At the same time, the profile of hutong residents is rapidly ageing, which means the traditional lifestyle of old Beijingers is quickly disappearing.

Life in hutongs

Yao is one of a handful of old Beijingers still living in hutongs. He and his wife live in a rented house of barely 20 square metres. In the living room are simple furniture and appliances like a table, sewing machine and a TV; the cramped attic above the living room is their bedroom, no bigger than the area of a queen-sized bed. 

Rearing pigeons is a hobby that many old Beijingers living in hutong practice.
Rearing pigeons is a hobby that many old Beijingers living in hutong practice. (Photo: Li Shanyi)

But Yao knows how to use space creatively, converting the small rooftop area into an area to rest and rear pigeons. 

In 2019, Yao took part in a TV programme on renovating old homes, and the production team arranged a professional renovation of his living space. The biggest change following the renovation was having a kitchen with a ventilation system, and a standalone toilet. Before the renovation, Yao and his wife had to leave the house to use the public toilet in all kinds of weather; they cooked in a narrow vent less than a metre wide under the stairs. 

The renovation improved the hardware and facilities in Yao’s home, but the limited space is not an issue that can be solved by renovating.

“If the state wants us to leave in the future, we will definitely listen to the party’s command. But my heart wishes to stay here.” — Yao Jianhua

Yao Jianhua loves collecting old objects from hutongs. (Photo: Li Shanyi)
Yao Jianhua loves collecting old hutong objects. (Photo: Li Shanyi)

Yao’s hobby is collecting old hutong objects; the huge wooden door, partition panels and bearing stones piled up in his home starkly contrast with the tiny space he lives in. Notwithstanding his wife’s complaints about the cluttered house, Yao is used to this living environment. To him, the tight space and the piles of old objects are precious pieces of the sentiment and history of old Beijing.

There is also an important and practical reason behind staying in hutongs — Yao’s monthly rent is only 50 RMB (US$7), which is completely unimaginable in other parts of Beijing’s 2nd Ring Road.

Yao told Zaobao, “If the state wants us to leave in the future, we will definitely listen to the party’s command. But my heart wishes to stay here. We’re old and it is quite inconvenient for us to move to 5th Ring Road or 6th Ring Road.”

To Yao Jianhua, the tight space and the piles of old objects are precious pieces of the sentiment and history of old Beijing. (Photo: Li Shanyi) 
To Yao Jianhua, the tight space and the piles of old objects are precious pieces of the sentiment and history of old Beijing. (Photo: Li Shanyi) 

However, Mrs Yao thinks otherwise. Hearing our conversation, she fervently interjected, “Of course we have to move to high-rise buildings. What’s the use of staying here?”

Moving out

Space constraints and old facilities are the reasons why many old Beijingers choose to move out of the hutongs, and few young Beijingers are willing to live in old hutongs anymore.

70-year-old part-time cleaner Chen Fang (pseudonym) moved out of the hutongs where she had grown up under a demolition and relocation project in the 1980s and was allocated a two-bedroom apartment in Beijing’s 2nd Ring Road. Such favourable compensation packages no longer exist in Beijing today. Instead, the government is implementing an application-based surrender of tenancy in some hutongs, allowing tenants of vacated hutong areas to selectively surrender their leases, with reallocated houses generally situated in the remote areas of 5th and 6th Ring Roads such as Tongzhou district.

When it comes to preserving hutong culture, many people are conflicted like Chen — on the one hand, they prefer the comfortable living environment of high-rise buildings; on the other hand, they also believe that these historical buildings that hold their childhood memories and depict the lifestyle of old Beijingers should be preserved.

yao jianhua
Yao Jianhua knows how to use space creatively. (Photo: Li Shanyi)

Chen told Zaobao, “My living environment certainly improved after moving into a high-rise building. In the past when I stayed in a hutong, there was no heating system. Can you imagine that kind of life? But many old Beijingers grew up in hutongs. These are memories that they don’t want to lose.”

The tug-of-war between commercialisation and the preservation of hutong culture continues to attract attention...

The future of hutongs

Beijing’s hutongs are transforming in appearance and function, with some taking on commercial uses and repurposed into trendy restaurants, cafes and cultural stores. The tug-of-war between commercialisation and the preservation of hutong culture continues to attract attention; after the current generation of old Beijing hutong tenants fades away and more hutongs are vacated, what will hutongs look like?

Dr Donia Zhang, founding editor-in-chief of the Journal of Chinese Architecture and Urbanism, said, “While generating income through commercialisation is certainly a way to preserve the original appearance of hutongs and to help visitors understand the characteristics of old Beijing, such an approach may also trigger dissatisfaction among some former residents. Although there is no simple solution to the problem, I believe that redevelopment should be conducted based on the original form and style. The only lasting truth is change.”

Beijing hutongs are gradually turning into trendy restaurants and cafes. (Photo: Meng Dandan)
Beijing hutongs are gradually turning into trendy restaurants and cafes. (Photo: Meng Dandan)

Zhang is also a member of the Architectural Humanities Research Association. She predicts that a decade later, most old Beijing hutongs may look like Nanluoguxiang, lined with many traditional Chinese art stores targeted at domestic and foreign tourists, while many refurbished siheyuans will also turn into tea houses, cafes or restaurants. 

She said, “This is inevitable. Modernisation has put a lot of pressure on the use and value of land, and these traditional siheyuans will not be the lifestyle for most people in downtown Beijing.”

This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as “居民老龄化 北京胡同面貌与功能逐渐蜕变”

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