Text and photographs by Scott Huntsman
Years ago, while living in another part of China, I first visited Beijing and stayed at a hostel in a quiet alley called Nanluoguxiang. The traditional narrow lane, or hutong, was quaint and irresistibly charming, lined with homey cafes and bars, shops and restaurants. Five years later, that place has become a whole new world. Brand new bricks perfectly pave the lane, and nary can a blemish be found on walls or facades of shops. Seas of tourists flood the lane on any given day, and prices are now on par with tourist nooks in New York or LA. I can still recognize the hostel - they have managed to survive the exponential rent hikes so far - but the genuine vintage allure that the area once emanated is all but gone. Although the lane may remain in the place it was built during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), everything there now screams “21st century.”
During an era of blistering growth, Beijing’s hutong areas remain an irreplaceable link to its magnificent past. Modern Beijing appears more horizontal and spread out than many other Chinese cities, and with reason. During imperial times, rarely was a building ever erected with a second story, in case the emperor passed by on the ground level. During the Republic of China period (1912-1949), Beijing’s hutongs actually increased to 1,330 from the last Qing Dynasty count of 978. However, since 1949 their numbers have declined steadily. Luckily, much of the capital’s central lanes lined with quadrangle residences are now under special protection. Beijing’s major hutong area sits north-central, in the vicinity of the Bell and Drum Towers.
Although some may feel transported back centuries when strolling down hutongs, when I first visited Wudaoying, I felt yanked back five years ago when I first visited Nanluoguxiang. Wudaoying is now exactly as Nanluoguxiang was before its vintage allure was consumed by tourist modernity. Due to Wudaoying’s position (parallel to and just south of north second ring road, closer to the subway than Nanluoguxiang, and only a block north of Fangjia Hutong), it’s surprising that it didn’t emerge earlier. Today, it’s the hutong du jour for Beijing locals both foreign and Chinese, at least until too many developers start seeing dollar signs, reconstruct it completely, and seas of tourists take over.