The question of authenticity strikes me every time I walk through a hutong recommended by a guide book. These are, without exception, hutongs which have been converted into food and bar streets. They are crowded with Chinese youth and tourists. Nothing remains of the original hutongs. Those are full of local life, children playing in the streets, older people sitting around, men and women going about their daily life, chatting. The repurposed hutongs are dissociated from the life of the city, and look like a bar street anywhere else in the world, sometimes glitzy, sometimes sleazy, like the photo above.
They satisfy a notion of conservation according to which authenticity resides in the material. The notion that change in usage can render the neighbourhood inauthentic does not strike the self-congratulatory guidebooks.
One afternoon we walked into a hutong near Yang He Gong. Outside a house near the entrance was this impressive road-side shrine. The light was wonderful when I took this photo. A man came out to talk to us, but he spoke Mandarin, which we could not follow. We walked further into the winding lanes. People relaxed outside their houses. The shrine must have been extremely protective of the neighbourhood, because as we walked one tiny little dog tried to bite my feet. Fortunately my footwear defeated its teeth.
This is not a story of middle earth. It is a story from the middle kingdom.
Every town in China seems to have a bell tower and a drum tower. They were used to keep time: the bell tolled the beginning of the day, and the drum, its end. They would also ring at various other times to mark various important divisions of the day.
In Beijing, the plaza between the two towers is full of tourists during the day. We chanced on it some time after the gates of the towers had closed. When we arrived, dinner time was already over for most Chinese families, and this plaza had been turned into a playground for children from the surrounding hutongs. They were out doing all kinds of things, with parents and grandparents keeping watch as usual.
The Family says, and I agree, that finishing dinner early seems to give you time to do many things before you fall asleep. Why can’t we do this in India? We never seem to have time between getting back from work, having dinner, and falling asleep.
We walked through several hutongs north of the bell tower of Beijing, before we came to this quirky sight: a museum of ancient liquor! Not something that you will find in a guide book. It was dinner time, and the place was closed. But you should mark this place in Wangzuo Hutong as a place not to be missed when you come around here.
If you ever visit, please leave a comment on this page telling me what it is. I guess I will not have the time on this trip to go back to check. Such is life!
Some of the hutongs of Beijing are places for ordinary people to live, in a style similar to that which they have lived for a few generations. The Guowang hutong, off Gulou street is one such. This man seems to go door to door inside the hutong, picking up junk. We’d passed a courtyard earlier in our wandering where the junk was being sorted, so presumably this is part of the economy.
It reminded us of India where the junk dealers still come flat to flat and take away things. One of them had even taken away a washing machine from us! Made us wonder whether a similar junk dealer goes to the high-rises of Beijing.