the urbanist: beijing

How to Explore Beijing’s Historical Hutongs

Magic of the hutongs.

To many, the true essence of Beijing is found in the nooks and crannies of the city’s hutongs: traditional lanes packed with single-story houses. Gentrification is common in these rustic havens, but intriguing traces of the capital’s past remain embedded among the coffee shops and boutiques. Here, Beijing-based historian Lars Ulrik Thom, founder of the Beijing Postcards historical tour and research company, explains how to uncover hidden hutong history.

The entrance to a courtyard house in Shijia Hutong. Photo: GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images

The old banks: Shijia Hutong
“This hutong, just southeast of Yangmeizhu Xiejie, is where bankers were based for hundreds of years; some of the architecture you see there now was built in the 1920s and ’30s. People only trusted people from their own provinces with money, so they’d sort of make their own bank systems — you’d have hundreds of banks in this area. You can see old bank buildings opposite number 28, and one at number 22 still has an interesting heavy old door. You can tell it was meant to keep people out. The old bank at number 11 has been turned into Hyde Courtyard Hotel; the sign outside says that the Yuxingzhong Banking Firm moved in there in 1947.

Normally when you walk through a gate in a hutong in Beijing, you have a courtyard with one big house and then smaller houses on the side, but some gates on this one lead to totally different-looking housing areas. Instead, they have no courtyards and super-interesting, two-story architecture, similar to that you’d see in the city of Pingyao.”

Marco Polo Bridge. Photo: Photographer � Phil Weymouth / Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images/Lonely Planet Image

Trinkets and a trade route: Yangmeizhu Xiejie
“Dashilan Xijie, close to Yangmeizhu Xiejie, was part of the trade route people would take when they came into Beijing, over the Marco Polo Bridge toward town. During the Qing dynasty, the city was segregated — commercial establishments were only allowed to be set up in the outer city, so down here you’d have lots of shops. Brothels, theaters, markets, banks, pawnbrokers, teahouses, all that stuff — a melting pot of society.

You can see Western-style architecture that was built after 1912, when the last emperor abdicated and a lot of people sought to modernize Beijing; this would have been one of the first areas in the city where that happened. Yangmeizhu Xiejie originally housed bookstores, and famous writers such as Lu Xun would often come to the area; now Soloist Coffee is a nice place to view the lane from. It has a great balcony overlooking the hutong.

The hutong has not been bricked up or lost its soul; there are fairly strict policies about what businesses are allowed to move in here. At number 69, there’s a tiny shop run by a guy called Nuoman. Beijing has five ring roads, and he says, ‘The things I sell have never left the second ring road.’ He’s got old Beijing memorabilia — signs and coins — but he also sells weird things like computer games from the 1990s. I found a book from the 1970s there about how to take down a tank and make your own gun, written for the street militia.

The family that owns the café at No. 70 are Muslim, which is quite rare in Beijing. They used to make and sell medicine made from dog skin, and were thrown out during the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s. They’ve since reclaimed most of their old courtyard and have a little exhibition about the place upstairs.”

Cultural Revolution traces: Mao’er Hutong
“The streets connected with the busy Nanluoguxiang strip, such as Mao’er, comprise classic hutong-style neighborhoods. You will notice that some of the mendun — small stone structures outside these gates — are smashed. They were destroyed by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution because they represented the ‘face’ and status of a family. Historically few of the gates would have been painted red, as they are now; during the Ming and Qing dynasties, they’d be black or green, with only the most important ones being red. But more recently, likely after the People’s Republic of China was formed in 1949, they all became red. The communists were taking over and red is the communist color, so everyone painted their gate red.”

Gateway to a city oasis: Wusi Dajie
“This translates to ‘May 4th Big Road,’ although it feels like a hutong, and is supposedly the only road in Beijing that still has its Cultural Revolution name. Many roads had their names changed during that time but this is the only one that didn’t change its name back afterward. May 4th is very important: There were big demonstrations against the Western world [focused on May 4, 1919, when Beijing students protested against the terms of the Treaty of Versailles]. For many, that’s when the nationalist and communist spirit was ignited.

The old Peking University is found on this road: the red brick building. They have a museum about the university, where you can often stumble into something interesting. The road also runs across Huangchenggen Relics Park, which is where the eastern wall of the Imperial City ran. The wall was torn down in the 1920s, so it’s easy to forget that it was ever there, but about 15 years ago local authorities made the strip into a long thin park running north to south. It’s got many different types of vegetation and statues, and walking down it really stimulates your brain. To me, this is a very successful public history project: It raises awareness of what was originally here, and lots of locals use the park.

Beijing Hotel. Photo: Tim Graham/Tim Graham/Getty Images

Near the south end of Huangchenggen is the Beijing Hotel, the first section of which was built in 1907. The tall section of the hotel was built in the 1970s. During the Cultural Revolution, lots of businesses in China were closed down, but in the early 1970s, strong forces within the Party wished to open a window to the world and reverse these policies. The 17-story building was almost a statement in itself against the conservative forces of the Party, not least Mao’s wife Jiang Qing. It violated just about every building regulation going when it was built, and is still towering alone only a few hundred meters down the road from the Tiananmen gate.”

How to Explore Beijing’s Historical Hutongs