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Beijing Hutongs – 南锣鼓巷胡同

December 3, 2009

Clockwise from top left: A pigeon coop - keeping pigeons is a common hobby among hutong residents; a pair of geese stand by the side of a bustling main road... someone's pets?; storing cabbage for the winter.

Beijing is famous for its Hutongs, narrow alleyways lined by picturesque courtyard houses that crowd the center of the city. While visitors might first jump at a chance to see Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City or the Great Wall, I think that a walk around the hutongs can give you more of the flavor of what it is like to live in Beijing and how old the city is. Hutongs are arranged in circles radiating out from the Forbidden City and in China’s dynastic era your address would signal your rank so that the hutongs closer to the center of the city (and thus the emperor’s palace) housed high ranking officials. Today, many hutongs are threatened by the ever growing number of office and apartment buildings that seem to be taking over the city. This decline started as early as the mid-20th century when the Communist government took over and recreated Beijing in the Soviet architectural style.

One area that is perfect for wandering and discovering hutongs is in the Second Ring Road district, directly north of the Forbidden City and east of Beihai Park. This area is home to Beijing’s Bell and Drum Towers, built in the 13th century to broadcast the time to all of Beijing. A walk on the Eastern street of the Drum Tower (Gu Lou Dong Da Jie, 鼓楼东大街) can lead to many little hutongs and there is one in particular that has received much attention due to its recent restoration. Nan Luo Gu Xiang Hutong (南锣鼓巷胡同, Southern Bell and Drum Hutong) is a 700 year old hutong and one of the oldest in Beijing. Due to its close proximity to the towers which are often visited by tourists, this hutong has been lucky enough to be chosen as a historic site worthy of preservation.

Clockwise from top left: Beijing's Drum Tower; a beautifully restored doorway to a courtyard near the Drum Tower; a stall selling red bean buns on Nan Luo Gu Xiang Hutong.

Many shops, cafes and restaurants have sprung up and keep the street lively with tourists and residents alike. There is even a hostel there for RMB 140/night (around $20). On my recent visit  I bought a steaming hot red bean bun and walked down the street on my Christmas shopping errands, finding many handmade gifts along the way. The profusion of foreign tourists has encouraged a lot of local entrepreneurs (and foreign shop owners too) to set up here, selling such goods as old photographs of Beijing, vintage wind up toys, handmade notebooks and pottery. Although I have to say the Chinese penchant for copying does not die here (unfortunately) since I saw at least three shops selling vintage matchbooks which had to be someone’s original idea which was then unimaginatively recreated (how can you even make money selling those anyway?).

An article covering all the shops and buildings on the street in particular detail can be found here. An interesting video interview with the owner of Pass By Bar, the oldest bar on the street, can be seen here.

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