Protecting hutongs in Beijing is a balancing act

Wang Dingzheng
The attempt at making a slice of traditional life relevant in a modern setting has always been a challenge.
Wang Dingzheng

Amidst the narrow alleyways or hutongs in downtown Beijing is the renowned Nanluoguxiang, a bustling marketplace with nearly eight hundred years of history. For centuries, the market offered produce and daily necessities to locals who lived in the nearby courtyard residences or siheyuan.

Today the market is also lined with high-end coffee shops and souvenir stores selling knick-knacks to tourists.

The attempt at making a slice of traditional life relevant in a modern setting has always been a challenge.

Some say whatever historical relevance the market claims to have has been marred by the vendors eager to turn a quick buck, and the market today caters more to tourists than locals.

But local residents obviously have other preoccupations and aspirations.

As a matter of fact, surrounding the marketplace is a sprawling network of traditional alleyways and residences. These adjoining neighborhoods are quieter and see fewer tourists. Most of the living spaces are actually modest, sparsely decorated dwellings.

Once inside, one is likely to find families crammed into cramped spaces. The walls and countertops are often coated with a thick layer of dust and debris. There is no indoor plumbing.

Aspirations for good life

The newly commercialized nature of the area ensures a high volume of foot traffic at all hours. The neighborhood has become noisy, and less affordable.

Retired residents living in the heart of hutong neighborhoods now prefer to travel to markets farther from home for affordable groceries.

Obviously, the way to balance the needs of tourists with those of residents has always been a matter of great dexterity.

“This is indeed a complex issue,” said Xinyu Hu, former head of operations at the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center (CHP). Hu now runs an institution called the Courtyard Institute, which aims to preserve the old Beijing culture.

“When I was working on renovation projects for CHP more than a decade ago, CBS News once stopped me for an interview,” said Hu. “Afterwards a local Beijinger asked me what I said in the interview, and upon learning that I advocated for hutong protection, he retorted: ‘Is there any reason to protect hutongs anymore?’”

Hu believes that though some residents do choose to leave their courtyard residences, that does not mean that Beijing should give up this way of life altogether.

Hutongs are at the center of the old Beijing identity,” he argues.

While some residents have left in search of better life, some still share Hu’s conviction that hutongs are central to Beijing identity. Hu and the like-minded people feel the way that neighborhood traditions — such as kicking a shuttlecock — all represent a uniquely traditional way of life.

There is great potential to be tapped in the narrow hutong alleyways, Hu feels, but he believes that they need to be approached the right way.

Hu advocates for an orderly and systematic development, with careful selection of the locations of future projects based on how different groups of individuals react to changes.

He believes that urban planners should listen to all parties involved, including foreign tourists, local tourists and the residents. Problems should be addressed sustainably.

Only with this type of collaborative approach, Hu believes, can different interests be reconciled to create a neighborhood that is lively and authentic.

Wang Dingzheng is a senior two student at the international department of the Beijing National Day School. The views are his own.

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