Beijing Diary: My Neighborhood

These days, I live in the hutongs of Beijing. A “hutong” is a neighborhood made up of complex and meandering alleyways and small streets created by the close juxtapositioning of traditional courtyard style houses next to each other. The seemingly endless warrens of narrow lanes and alleys lend an air of mystery (to me, anyway) of much of the area.

There are often doorways every few meters. Some open into new alleys. Some open into courtyards, though you’ll only ever see from the street the entryway and turning that actually leads to the open space within. SOme doors open into homes. And some open into simple one-room quarters with but enough room for a bed, a chair, and a small table.

Many of the dwellings are quite old. Many do not have modern plumbing, and so throughout the hutong, you will see public bathrooms. Most are simply toilets, segregated between men and women. You will often see people visiting them early in the morning with their piss-buckets and potties from the previous night. Some of them, however, have basic shower facilities– though not modern ones. The toilets lack privacy screens between stalls, and normally smell quite foul.

The sewers are little more than ditches in the sides of the road, although paved over. They are covered and paved over, at least; but modern plumbing is not a thing here in China. Although there is running water and flushing toilets, the system that is supposed to carry the effluvia away is dreadfully primitive. And while China does have water treatment plants, I have questions regarding their efficacy, since water must be boiled before use from the tap. I myself buy bottled water, which so far has proved to be potable.

The main streets of the hutong are just– and only just– wide enough to accomodate a quadriga– a chariot drawn by four horses yoked abreast. In practice, however, the streets are much narrower, as residents and tourists clog the passageways with foot traffic, bicycles, scooters, tuk-tuks, and modern automobiles. And there are often vehicles parked on the sides of the streets, further decreasing the amount of space in the roads for transportation.

The general effect of it all reminds me very strongly of a computer game I used to play (and still do, when I have the chance) called Morrowind. There is a city in-game called Vivec, built in vaguely pyramid-like structures, and there are neighborhoods there, like St. Olms, that resemble the hutong style mazes in which I now live. Some of the side streets and back alleys of Balmora and Suran also bear a vague resemblance to this arrangement.

Some decades ago, in the 1980s, China began demolishing a lot of these hutong neighborhoods, evicting long-time residents by force where necessary. Many elderly people, who had no other home to go to, were given a lot of press, as was the fact that Beijing seemed to be destroying sires of genuine historical interest. There was a lot of criticism from the West at this brutal imposition of eminent domain.

However, many of the old buildings had been very poorly maintained over the centuries of their existence. At least, the past several decades since 1949. Even today, one can often see structures of old, unglazed brick, the mortar having long ago decayed away. Ancient crumbling masonry, rotting wood, collapsing rooves…. In fact it was as much a safety concern as it was the cleaning up of a tourist area. They did preserve as much as they could, and a lot had been built back to match the ancient style. Many of these hutong neighborhoods were built to accommodate the relatives of the Emperor and his court when they would come to visit Beijing (I live within short walk of the Forbidden City and the Palace Museum).

About Michael Butchin

I was born, according to the official records, in the Year of the Ram, under the Element of Fire, when Johnson ruled the land with a heavy heart; in the Cradle of Liberty, to a family of bohemians. I studied Chinese language and literature at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. I spent some years in Taiwan teaching kindergarten during the day, and ESOL during the evenings. I currently work as a high school ESOL teacher, and am an unlikely martial artist. I have spent much of my life amongst actors, singers, movie stars, beautiful cultists, Taoist immortals, renegade monks, and at least one martial arts tzaddik. I currently reside in Beijing's Dongcheng district
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