The Hutong are a very distinctive part of Beijing. It’s said that a quarter of the city’s residents live in the hutongs, narrow alleyways made up of somewhat crumbly one-story stone buildings and courtyard homes. A lot of them are being demolished to make way for the new large buildings popping up all over Beijing, which is a big controversy over there. There are construction sites EVERYWHERE in the city.
In order to create the feeling of a hutong you need to mix the back alleys of Venice with the energy of the old Ninth Ward of New Orleans, and then throw in a pinch of certain parts of Queens. They are built in an east-west axis radiating out from the Forbidden City. Apparently certain hutongs used to perform certain functions – for example, there used to be a hutong where everyone who washed the Emporers royal laundry lived. (Glad I missed out on that action!)
For the most part, the hutong residences seem to be rather small apartments with many people living in close proximity. As I wander through and stop to draw there is, of course, the usual Beijing scene: people stare as I go by and crowd in around me to watch me draw. You get used to it after a while – this close physical proximity to strangers – it seems to be a way of life here in China. Actually, once you get over being crowded you realize the people are usually pretty nice, tapping my shoulder to give me the thumbs up, or practicing their English for a quick – “very good!”
There seems to be a lot of hanging out going on in the hutong, reminding me of my old neighborhood in Brooklyn, Bay Ridge, where guys would sit on lawn chairs with a folding table playing backgammon all day. Everyone seems to be playing cards here, chewing the fat, kidding around with each other. It’s a community kind of feeling, and a slower pace. I saw three people unloading a pick up truck full of watermelons, one by one, brigade style. The people seem more relaxed here and the little kids run around freely, no diapers. It is interesting how the children are the main event here. You will see families walking through the streets of the city like wheels rotating around the little ones. And man, some of them are tyrants, especially the little boys! I don’t know, maybe the one child per family Chinese rule is the culprit here, but there are quite a few new emporers coming up in the ranks of Beijing.
Every so often in the narrow alleyway you will come across a large red door with ornate carving around it – the courtyard of a wealthy family. This is where the neighborhood reminds me of Venice – big old doors and water stained stone walls with fantastic gardens tucked inside. I guess Marco Polo visited the place once or twice.
Anyway, the soul of Beijing seems to be in its hutongs and the areas around them. One night we ventured out to the night market – a large strip of stalls where you can get just about anything that moves grilled on a stick. I’m not kidding, you want to eat beetles, starfish, emu? You can get it there. And something was cooking that just smelled like nothing I have ever smelled before: I’ll die still wondering what it was. Someone told me it was fried tofu, but I’ve eaten fried tofu and it didn’t smell like THAT. Whatever it was I hope I never come across it again. In any event, we walked around for a while until I saw an old man gleefully biting into a fried octopus on a stick and decided to get the heck out of there. I mean, to each his own and all that but I have limits…some experiences I can live without!