Hutong

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Beijing, Monday, Oct. 15

Yesterday, on our first morning in Beijing, my roommate, Sohail Bengali ’79, and I awoke early—about 4:00 a.m. Our jet-lagged bodies didn’t know that the sun wasn’t going to come up in East China for another two and a-half hours, but we did the only thing we could do under the circumstances: We got up.

Sohail is an investment banker in San Francisco, working for a firm that raises capital for large infrastructure projects. When we arrived in Beijing, he checked to see if his Blackberry would work here. Too bad for him—it did.

img_8200.JPGSohail Bengali on the bus. Hey, Sohail, look out the window, you’re in China.

At 6 a.m., with the eastern horizon glowing orange, we hit the streets for a walk. Before leaving the hotel, we confirmed its location on a map with the friendly woman at the front desk. Pointing to her right, she suggested that we walk west, toward the commercial district, where we would find “many shops.” As we left the hotel, I pointed the opposite direction. “Let’s see if we can find some hutong,” I suggested, and the agreeable Sohail agreed.

Our feet quickly took us out of the five-star hotel district. (Our hotel, opened earlier this year, has Beijing’s Rolls Royce dealer attached to its lobby. Next door are the Lamborghini and Maserati showrooms.) The streets were almost deserted so early on a Sunday, but soon the city began to stir. Street sweepers with coarse stick brooms corralled the previous day’s litter into neat piles, which were then picked up by men and women pedaling tricycle “trash trucks” that hold little more than a cubic meter. It seemed that every couple of blocks, there was another sweeper and another pedaling picker-upper, with the result that the streets in Beijing—even the poorer hutong that we found within blocks of the hotel—are remarkably clean.

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Peeking into a quadrangle house, one sees additional structures filling the former courtyard.

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A tricycle Dumpster pedaled by a picker-upper, in the hutong east of our hotel.

Hutong literally means “small street” or “alley,” but in a larger sense it describes the traditional residential pattern of this city—one that is rapidly being supplanted by high-rise apartments and suburban housing communities. Along these alleys, which snake atop the overall NSEW grid of city streets, are the “quadrangle” or courtyard houses that are typical of old North China.

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This traditional house has a satellite dish on its tile roof.

Each consists of a rectangular or square walled compound with rooms around its perimeter and a courtyard at its center. Until “New China” (how Chinese refer to the establishment of Communist rule in 1949), these dwellings typically housed one extended family—with two or three generations living together. The abolition of private property and the need to house many more people in Beijing led to the demise of this system; in most cases, families were allowed to remain in their former homes, but they were forced to share the already crowded space with other, unrelated, families. Many courtyards were filled with additional shacks and sheds as the space crunch increased.

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Inside the courtyard, it’s crowded with laundry and plants.

We walked these and other streets for more than an hour. I bought some fried dough from a vendor who was cooking on the sidewalk with a vat of hot oil over a propane burner. Sohail stopped at a fruit market and got a bunch of those tasty small Asian bananas. As we walked and munched, the city gradually came to life. Bicyclists jingled us out of their way on the hutong, and cars and trucks began to crowd the larger streets.

Back at the hotel, we joined members of the Swarthmore group at breakfast. The lavish buffet had dozens of dishes, juices, and fruits. Remembering the delights of breakfast in Vietnam, I had a bowl of noodle soup with a dollop of hot chiles.

Today (Monday), we visited the hutong as a group. The bus took us to a different district, however, where the hutong are being saved. With the rapid development of Beijing in the post-Mao era (what you might call the New New China), many hutong have been torn down, I suspect that the ones near our hotel will fall soon to the developer’s hammer, but in the Northern Lake district, an effort is being made to keep the wreckers at bay and preserve at least some of the traditional quadrangle houses.

Through Jack, whose command of English is excellent, local resident Mr. Zhang tells us that about 20 people from at least three families live in the 14 rooms of the hutong house. The old central courtyard contains a shed-roofed brick structure, but there is also room for a tree or two along the narrow pathways that divide the living spaces. Laundry hangs among the vines of bean plants outside Zhang’s small studio, where brushes and paints are set neatly on an artist’s table. Framed paintings, presumably Zhang’s, show a man of significant talent—a nice mix of traditional Chinese and Western aesthetics.

img_8270.JPGMr. Zhang’s brushes are neatly laid out in his small studio.

Mr. Zhang briefly tells his life story before taking questions. His father made a “pretty good living” as an herbal medicine practitioner—a traditional Chinese doctor. From age 9 to 19, he studied traditional calligraphy, then went to art college, graduating in 1966. Before 1990, he was a government artist, creating work that was sold to tourists and others in government shops. Then he left his job to open a gallery in Beijing, where he sells his work. Now, he says, his life is getting better because of the capitalistic economy. Zhang is apparently quite successful. The small house has air conditioning, a washing machine, a brand-new Sony TV, electric heat, and many other comforts. He has the incentive to renovate the house since regaining ownership, and its five small rooms have new tile floors.

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Mr. Zhang mixes Chinese and Western styles in his beautiful watercolors.

Outside, it appears that the entire district is undergoing renovation. You might even call it gentrification. Underground electrical service is replacing a tangle of overhead wires, and the trenched streets are being repaved with stone. There’s construction everywhere, and bright shops selling not only tourist goods but a variety of consumer items for the Chinese.

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The narrow hutong are festooned with overhead wires, but underground power is being installed in this neighborhood.

This is clearly becoming a desirable neighborhood, although Mrs. Bai, when she gets a chance to talk with us, says her daughter still doesn’t want to live here. No privacy, she says with a knowing smile.

Zhang was a young artist, trained in both Chinese and Western styles, when the Cultural Revolution engulfed the country in 1967 and 1968. I asked him what had happened to him. Instead of being “sent down” to the rural areas as many intellectuals were, he said he was “lucky to be assigned to the compass factory,” where he could no longer create “romantic” paintings, but rather made political propaganda for the factory work unit.

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Mr. Zhang and Mrs. Bai. After high school, she was assigned a job in a compass factory. He met her there when he was “sent down” to the factory during the Cultural Revolution.

Next came the rickshaw rides. The travel brochure calls them pedicabs, but nonetheless, we were about to be conveyed by human power, like colonial concessionaires. Sohail, whose parents emigrated from India to the United States after World War II, didn’t like it a bit, but we got in and had our picture taken in the colorful two-seater. Our convoy of about 20 rickshaws headed down the hutong highway at a fast clip, dodging the four-door Hyundais that serve as Beijing’s modern taxi fleet. We felt silly and a little sheepish as we bumped along to lunch.

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Sohail and I enjoy our rickshaw ride, sort of. A fleet of pedicabs conveyed us through the narrow streets.

Lunch was in another hutong, supposedly an authentic home-cooked meal. We made crepes filled with various ingredients put before us—including slices of corned beef and ham that might have come from an American deli. Corned beef with hoisin sauce was a new experience for most of us. Beer was served as well, as it seems to be at every Chinese meal. It’s a weak brew, about 3.5 percent alcohol, but is light-tasting and refreshing.

The woman of the house, Mrs Heyun, prepared the food while her granddaughter helped another woman serve. The granddaughter, who later told me her name is Gobi, spoke good English. After lunch, she told us a little about herself and her family, which, from the religious paintings above the day bed, was obviously Christian. Gobi is a recent graduate of Peking University (yes, it’s still “Peking” where the university is concerned, and that’s a long story) who works as a primary school teacher during the morning.

In the afternoons, she helps her grandmother, with whom she lives, with these lunches and tourist visits, which bring in some extra income. Gobi’s parents have moved across town to an apartment, for this is a very small place, with room enough for Gobi and her grandmother to sleep in the same room where we are eating. I imagine what it was like when all four (or five, for there was no mention of her grandfather) of them lived here. This quadrangle house is still owned by the government, and the family pays a small rent.

As we left, I took a photo of Gobi with Carol Nackenoff. Taking out my notebook, I asked the young Chinese woman—whose stylish glasses are typical of her generation—how to spell her name. She told me, and then took the notebook from me and wrote it down in both Roman letters and Chinese characters. “Send me a copy of the photo,” she said cheerfully, penning her hotmail address below the Chinese characters.

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Gobi Heyun and Professor Carol Nackenoff.

As we climbed back into our rickshaw, Sohail observed that we had just met the future of China. With one foot in the hutong and another in the modern world, with her university education and her excellent English, Gobi is going places. And with so many young people like her, the future of China is everywhere. Take “Angel,” our “local guide” for the hutong tour. We have lots of guides—Jack, who works for the tour operator; Howard Smith, the tour operator himself; Shi’yan, our “national” (government) guide; and various local guides such as Angel, whose lively presentations of traditional Chinese culture were almost overshadowed by her lively presentation of herself.

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Our local guide in the hutong district called herself “Angel.” She had style.

The rickshaw arrives at a stand near the parking area for tour buses. There are hundreds of the pedicabs line up for the tourist trade. I ask Sohail if he thinks we should tip the driver. Tipping is not usual in China, and Howard has told us that he has “taken care of” the required gratuities. But how can I assuage that dim sense of imperialist guilt that is attached to all Westerners as they travel in the Third World? I reach in my pocket for a couple of U.S. dollars. “No,” says Sohail. “Let’s not upset the system.”

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