Tag Archives: hutong

Good Morning Beijing: An Experience of Contrasts


5:00am. It’s been 30 minutes since sunrise. I get up silently from the bunk, trying not to wake up my three other roommates at the hostel room. I step out of the room, stretch my arms as I pass by the open-air courtyard and step into the living room. The receptionist is asleep on the living room couch, so I turn my headlamp on red, sneak behind the reception desk and grab the iron; it’s Monday and I want to make my Hawaiian shirt look presentable for work. I finish getting ready, grab my backpack and step out of the hostel. This hostel is going to be my home for the next month and a half. It’s both tiring and exciting at the same time. I never know who I’ll get to meet next and I also don’t know how much longer that person is going to take in the bathroom before I can use it.


Outside, the morning sun is soft, casting light shadows from the trees that line the Hutong alley. As I head west down the alley, I pass by a man washing a car with a bucket and a rag. This reminds me of when I used to wash my own car by hand. I turn the other way and see a few orange uniforms hanging from the clothesline on the street. The uniforms have Chinese characters that I can’t understand, although I’m pretty sure I’ve seen the same uniforms on street-sweepers. Maybe they belong to my neighbors. I keep walking down the alley and pass by a shirtless man headed for the public toilets. The Dongsi neighborhood has many public toilets because the tightly packed living quarters in the Hutong often don’t have private bathrooms, so residents use the public bathrooms on the Hutong alleys. I’m thankful that the hostel is located in a neighborhood as unique and diverse as this. I’m also thankful that it has a private bathroom with hot water.


The alley is lined with small one-story buildings, constructed with grey brick, detailed wood roof structures, and grey roof tiles. The Dongsi neighborhood, with its traditional Hutong, has been around for hundreds of years. It’s a historic district that has been adapted to accommodate different uses throughout the years. The buildings have doors that lead to smaller open-air spiraling alleys that lead to private housing units. I see a fluffy brown dog come out a small alley, probably in search for a morning meal. The alley is mixed-use with some small stores scattered throughout. I think back to mixed-use areas or historic districts in Portland, but there’s no way to compare – the density and use of Dongsi is surreal. Then, I hear the ring of a bell behind me and before I turn a bike passes on my right. I pass by a small butcher next to a bakery, followed by a motorcycle pickup with 5 guys in the back heading my way. They have some construction tools at hand – probably getting ready to upgrade a building in the quickly evolving neighborhood. Everything in Beijing seems under construction. I keep walking and pass by a street stall selling fried dough cakes, next to a person sweeping the street, making way for a car entering the alley – everything is happening so fast. I reach the end of the alley, say “Ni Hao” to a guy at a small restaurant that I ate at recently, make eye-contact with the police-guard that looks after the alley and turn left on the main road towards the subway stop. The experience of walking from my hostel to the end of the road is incredibly rich, and it is all because of the people that use the space. This makes me question the boundary between public and private space, the barriers that institutions place on how we can make use of public space and the fragile role that planners/designers play in making spaces better for people.


The main road is different from the alley, both in scale and in form. It’s lined with shops selling a variety of things: cell phones, clothing, food, etc. The shops face a wide ~20’ sidewalk, which is shared by pedestrians, cyclists and mopeds, going in all directions. There’s lot’s of sounds and smells, both good and bad. A small moveable metal fence placed next to trees and parked bikes, divides the sidewalk from the road. Cyclists, mopeds, cars, buses and other variations of small rickshaws share the 3-lane road. It’s early yet people are out – walking, sitting shirtless, smoking cigs, and grabbing breakfast. The street is wider than the alley and as I look towards the horizon, I see a few more blocks but the rest remains hidden by the fog. I pass by someone wearing a facemask and remember that it’s not fog – it’s pollution – pollution from coal-burning, construction, traffic and thousands of factories around the city and in the surrounding Hebei province. Some days are worse than others, but pollution is a serious issue here and can personally make the difference for whether I take the subway or bike 45 minutes to work with a facemask. Today, I chose the subway.


I enter the subway stop through a modern steel and glass box. This is another gradual transition into modernity. I ride down the escalators until I reach the ticketing area. I take off my backpack and pass it through the bands of a security checkpoint – just like in an airport. I sip my water so the officers know I’m not bringing in hazardous liquids into the subway. This level of security is uncomfortable but then again, it is really safe and clean. I swipe my subway card, the gates open and the halls are suddenly flooded with people going in all directions. I search for the signs on the floor that point towards Line 6 until I reach the boarding area. The train tracks are divided by glass to prevent accidents. I wait less than a minute and the train arrives. The frequency of service is unreal. Inside the air-conditioned wagon, people are silent, reading or playing games on their smart phones. It’s state of the art. The train speeds, I look out the window and see geometric patterns projected on the walls of the tunnel. Hypermodern advertisements. After a 10-minute ride, the speaker announces my stop, in both English and Chinese. I hop out and make my way to the street level. Whew, what a trip!


The area where I work is much different that the Hutong where I live. It is lined with 8-12 story buildings of different architectural styles. Modern, arabesque, glass towers. You name it. I walk on the sidewalk, passing by people who are well dressed. The area has a business vibe, but it’s not super formal because it’s also close to schools and shopping centers. I see my office building and pass by the security checkpoint, saying “Ni Hao” to the 20-something officer inside the small detached security structure. They say nothing back. I enter my office building and greet the person at the reception “Ni Hao”. They respond with “Good Morning”. It’s probably my accent… I go through a few doors and enter the cafeteria. Breakfast is served daily from 7:15-8:15am – motivation to get to work on time, I think. I get in line, grab a tray and some chopsticks and start going through the different food options. Overwhelming! Salads, bakery items, dumplings, fried items, boiled eggs, soups, porridge, milk and orange juice. They take food seriously. I don’t know what any of these taste like, except for the milk and orange juice. I grab a little bit of everything. I head to the cashier and make hand signals to let them know that I am going to sign with my name for this meal because I don’t have a lunch card yet. They stare blankly at me as I look back at them. Then another person comes by and gives me a blank sheet to sign off on. I sit down in one of the many tables, finish my delicious breakfast and head to work.


The office is spread out across three different buildings. It has over 1000 employees and my department alone takes up 3 floors of a building (which is also used as a hotel and embassy). I get to my cubicIe-style workstation on the 8th floor and turn on my computer. Then I begin with my research task “One Belt, One Road”, a transit project that will connect China to Western Europe. It’s now 9:00am and today is my first day of work at the China Academy of Urban Planning and Design. Over and out!



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Endangered places: Exploring the hutong in Beijing

The hutong is comprised of grey brick homes like this one.

As Beijing rapidly modernizes, the hutongs — the traditional neighborhood unit of the city dating back to the 1300s — have been disappearing. Hutongs are comprised of narrow grey-bricked alleyways, slanted tile roofs, and square courtyards and were once found throughout the city. About 7000-8000 hutongs originally existed in Beijing, however 90% of them have been destroyed to make way for residential high rises, sky scrapers, and other modern urban amenities. In the early 2000s, the municipal government developed plans to preserve the hutongs in inner-city areas, immediately adjacent to the Forbidden City. Since then, however, the hutongs have continued to disappear, inching closer to becoming extinct places.


Nanluoguxiang is a now a busy retail strip that draws visitors from far and wide.

One of the more famous hutongs in Beijing is Nanluoguxiang, which also happens to be just a few steps from my apartment for the summer. Since arriving in town, I have explored some of the alleyways and courtyards of Nanluoguxiang in the evenings, which is always crowded with visitors. The main alleyway was recently refurbished into a thriving commercial strip that features a mix of mom-and-pop shops, bars, cafes, food stalls, as well as some posh retail.

Details found on a beautiful structure found inside the hutong.

Walking through the quieter alleyways, however, has hinted to a less glamorous past and suggests a rich heritage and history worthy of preservation. From talking to some of my colleagues at the office, I have learned that many of the hutongs have been demolished in order to ameliorate living conditions. In addition to the loss of historical structures, another consequence has been the displacement of people from their homes, neighborhoods, and social networks.

Is history repeating itself?

After learning a little bit about this issue, I could not resist  comparing China’s redevelopment program to urban renewal in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. According to Zhang and Fang (2004), both the Chinese and U.S. programs had lofty intentions to provide housing to low-income people which were later dismissed by governments motivated by economic growth. Is history repeating itself? If so, what can China learn from the United States about what not to do?


Zhang, Y. and Fang, K. (2004). Is history repeating itself? From urban renewal in the United States to inner-city redevelopment in China. Journal of Planning Education and Research, 23, 286-298.

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