Beijing’s disappearing hutong areas



They are slowly disappearing, but you will still find them everywhere in Beijing: hutong, or nong tang, areas built one or two decades ago.

The buildings, usually just one story high, are often poorly constructed and lack private sanitary facilities. Like in the old hutongs in the center of Beijing, residents share public restroom facilities and for a shower one has to go to a bathhouse.  A labyrinth of small alleys connects the houses on the inside of the hutong area and on the outside you will find small shops and restaurants providing the daily necessities.


Often these areas are surrounded by modern high rise commercial or residential buildings. On the one hand this provides a sharp contrast between the living conditions of the rich and the poor, on the other hand it characterizes the heterogeneous environment of the city where rich and poor are not (yet) segregated by districts. It makes that live on the streets in most parts of the city is (still) very lively with street vendors, small restaurants and people chatting or playing cards and Chinese chess on the street.


It is this heterogeneous environment that is often full of surprises. A while ago I was invited for a dinner by a Chinese friend living in such a poor hutong area.  It had rained that day and before I reached the entrance of the house, my shoes were completely covered with mud. Inside, a sparsely lit small room with a simple folding table, served as a dining room. Our host had invited a friend and we had a long talk over a good dinner with old traditional Beijing dishes and a lot of “baijiu” (a strong alchohol). At the end of the evening I exchanged business cards with the friend of our host. Back home I checked his name card and I found out that the friend was actually a very influential and rich person, being the second in command executive manager of one of China’s largest state-enterprises.


Eventually all of these poor hutong areas will disappear and make way for new development projects (except for the several hundred years old hutong areas that are gradually being restored as new homes for the rich). Nostalgic feelings make that many people regret that these areas disappear, but having talked with many of their residents, most people living there do look forward to their new houses with modern facilities.


Life in new high rise residential areas brings the inevitable loss of community sense compared to the life in the hutong areas.  A loss for street photographers and everybody else who enjoys lively street scenes. For the residents themselves however, this does not outweigh the benefits of the comfort provided by their new homes. The kind of home this street photographer returns to after a street photo shoot …






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