Several posts have been written in this blog about hutongs or nong tangs and we will continue to do so in different contexts. While the previous posts where all written within the context of China’s changing social environment with the hutong symbolizing the (disappearing) tradional way of life in China, today it is just about the romantic feelings of nostalgia that capture so many visitors to hutong areas.
On the left a resident is spraying the entrance to a hutong courtyard after a sandstorm in Beijing. On the right a view into the entrance of a courtyard in the old town of PingYao in Shanxi province.
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 …
Mr. Zhang lives in his Hutong house since 1955. The houses were built by state-owned enterprises at the time. These state-owned enterprises have been closed for many years now and Mr. Zhang lost his job then and never worked again. Mrs. Liu (Mr. Zhang’s wife) and neighbor Mrs. Yang also lost their job back then and are unemployed as well. All three live on government subsidies (*).
Mr. Zhang never worked again because of his high blood pressure and diabetes, he says.
Mr. Zhang’s house is in a central area of Beijing, with very high prices for the land. Often rumors go that the government is planning to clear the area for new a new development project, but so far nothing has happened. However, this also goes for the maintenance of the area. There is a tall dead tree standing, just meters away from Mr. Zhang’s home. Residents here have reported this threat to relevant government department for several times, but no one has taken action to solve this problem.
Mr. Zhang says that people in the neighborhood are very close to each other. The neighborhood has no contact with people working in the surrounding “tea street” (the largest concentration of tea traders in Beijing) as most of them are not originally from Beijing.
Mr. Zhang says that he feels a great emotional connection with this place, as he lived here since he was young. But if he would have the money, he would be happy to move to a modern high-rise building, maybe in one of the suburbs. He says this is his personal view, because he is getting tired of the noisy environment in the district. Both Mrs. Liu and Mrs. Yang agree with him and would move to a high-rise building as well if they could afford it. Not because the quality of the older buildings is bad; Mr. Zhang points at one of the buildings surrounding the Hutong area: “That building is old, but it survived the Tangshan earthquake” (in 1976).
(*) In 2003, China experienced a wave of privatizations of state-owned enterprises. As a result many workers were laid off. Most young workers received severance packages. Older employees often opted for receiving a basic, and usually unchanged, monthly payment until their retirement. As this payment is very basic and not corrected for inflation, it may not be enough to cover for basic living expenses. This caused several stirs in the past. Citizens who are too old to work or are in real need for money now may seek help from the local community that can provide a small amount per month to ensure a minimum living standard. In Beijing this amount is approximately 400 RMB per month.
Ningbo, Zhejiang Province. Photo: Mark Hobbs
These often dark, and sometimes at first sight depressing places fascinate me, not only as a photographer, but also because they remind me of the long narrow alleys that I would often wander along in my 20’s and 30’s whilst living in the inner city Melbourne, Australian suburb of Fitzroy. Melbourne’s alleys were constructed for very specific practical reasons, they gave ready access to the ‘backyard’ and ‘privy’ of the house (the outside toilet) “the night man” (as he was called) collected the human waste through a trapdoor strategically placed in the wall of the toilet. Most of the houses were built between 1860 and 1900 and of course without proper plumbing. With the houses facing the street and the alley behind the houses.
Ningbo, Zhejiang. China. Photo: Mark Hobbs
In China the alley or “nong tang” is the “street”, they are a maze of dark corners and walled encloses, with secrets behind every turn. To most “Western” eyes they are depressing poverty stricken places, but I find them fascinating, they give a glimpse of a way of life that is rapidly disappearing in China.
The community aspect of these places cannot be replaced with high-rise apartment blocks or western style bungalow dwellings. The Hutong (Traditional Chinese alley dwelling) is of course an integral part of the “nong tang”, they are walled courtyards with a family home surrounding a central yard, they give privacy and community simultaneously. In many of the cities that I have lived and worked in China, the “nong tang’ is rapidly disappearing, along with a way of life. This will be not only a great loss to China and its small communities but a great cultural loss to the world.
Photo’s and text Mark Hobbs