‘Please cherish your health’, losing yourself in Beijing’s hutong alleyways

Old Beijing, the one before giant skyscrapers and BMWs, is rapidly vanishing from the map. There are still pockets of the tightly knit hutong alleyways that used to characterise life in Bejing, but vast swathes of these plain looking streets have been demolished to make way for progress. Mao’s communists, capturing Beijing in 1949, immediately set about reshaping and rebuilding the Imperial capital in their own inimitable style: erasing symbols of the past became official policy and Communist Party dogma.

A hutong, Beijing, China

A hutong, Beijing, China

A hutong, Beijing, China

A hutong, Beijing, China

A hutong, Beijing, China

A hutong, Beijing, China

In 1940 there were over eight thousand temples and monuments in Beijing; by the 1960s there were around one hundred and fifty. The entire city had been transformed by the communist sledgehammer. Since the liberalisation of the economy, and official Communist Party blessing for rampant capitalism, greedy developers, in cahoots with corrupt officials, have seen to it that much of the traditional courtyard housing of the hutongs has been demolished.

From the outside, hutong alleyways look uninteresting, but they are home to beautiful courtyard houses. Walking off the street, through a doorway and down a small passage, the transformation between the public and the private couldn’t be greater. This contradiction was despised by Mao and his fellow-travellers, who saw courtyard houses as an expression of individualism and a threat to the Utopia they planned to build in China. These streets smacked of the feudal and were targeted for destruction.

A hutong, Beijing, China

A hutong, Beijing, China

A signpost in a hutong, Beijing, China

A signpost in a hutong, Beijing, China

The destruction of hutongs followed a general pattern of madness wrapped in the garb of modernisation and progress. In 1950 Mao ordered all the dogs in Beijing to be killed. This was followed by the Kill a Sparrow Campaign, itself part of the Four Pests Campaign. Blamed for eating too much grain the sparrow’s had to go, but all this achieved was an infestation of crop eating insects. One of many disastrous policies championed by Mao leading to the deaths of 45 million people in the Great Chinese Famine, 1958-62.

A courtyard house, Beijing, China

A courtyard house, Beijing, China

Roof tiles in a hutong, Beijing, China

Roof tiles in a hutong, Beijing, China

Roof tiles in a hutong, Beijing, China

Roof tiles in a hutong, Beijing, China

Paintings in a courtyard house, Beijing, China

Paintings in a courtyard house, Beijing, China

That there are any areas of hutong left is largely due to luck, but their tourist attraction potential means some have now been preserved. I spent a day wandering around the Houhai district of the city which is home to most of the remaining hutong. Although some have been turned into upmarket shopping streets, and others have been taken over by a new and affluent middle class, many are still traditional residential streets as they have been for centuries.

Upmarket hutong, Beijing, China

Upmarket hutong, Beijing, China

Upmarket hutong, Beijing, China

Upmarket hutong, Beijing, China

One of the completely unexpected aspects of the hutongs is that they are well provided for with public toilets. There appears to be a public toilet every few streets and for the slightly desperate traveller this is, quite literally, a relief. Having said that, even in my limited experience toilet quality varies dramatically. Don’t expect many Western comforts, these are squat toilets that are literally open to the rest of the world – you can happily chat to your neighbour because, if there is a partition at all, it isn’t big enough to give you privacy.

Upmarket hutong, Beijing, China

Upmarket hutong, Beijing, China

A hutong, Beijing, China

A hutong, Beijing, China

Beijing’s public toilets have a (well deserved) reputation for being unclean and smelly, and by smelly I mean ‘could knock over a bull elephant at 100 metres’ smelly. In recognition of this fact, and that the air inside toilets might actually be explosive or toxic, or both, the government has put up some handy warning signs. Please, please don’t smoke when in the toilet, and remember to cherish your health…

Warning sign in Beijing toilet, Beijing, China

Warning sign in Beijing toilet, Beijing, China

Beijing toilet, Beijing, China

Beijing toilet, Beijing, China

If the threat of death doesn’t assist with a speedy ‘movement’ I don’t know what will. The government finally decided to take action and, with a slogan that echos the Kill a Sparrow Campaign 50-years earlier, introduced the Two Flies Only public toilet policy. Flies were also a target of the Four Pests Campaign; whether people respond with the same fervour as in 1958 is to be seen, but now is probably not the best time to be a fly in Beijing.

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