We used to call the capital of the People’s Republic of China “Peking” and even named a roasted duck dish with crispy skin after it. However, the Chinese people always called it Beijing and may have been peeved about our absentmindedness. Since then the population grew to 21,150,000 by the end of 2013, which is nearly three times as many as New York City. Beijing has also developed into a thriving megalopolis that not even Batman would think of flying over.
Beijing is also a city of intriguing traditions, ancient pagodas and sacred temples where time slumbers on undisturbed except for mobile phones and tuc-tuc taxis. In its ancient heart you still see hutongs surviving in the face of property developers. These are narrow streets and alleyways lined by traditional courtyard residences.
During the 15th Century Ming Dynasty the Emperor decided he had enough of chaos around the Forbidden City where he lived. So he bashed down everything and laid the city out in grids similar to downtown Manhattan (although that’s where the similarity ends). The aristocrats lived in the inner zone nearby his palace, with space for high-ranking officials and wealthy merchants radiating out to the fringes where commoners, artisans and labourers lived. All very orderly like a well-cooked Peking Duck, of which only a few architectural feathers remain today.
It’s not too difficult to get lost in the maze of Beijing’s hutongs, especially in the more recent ones that went up in a less organized fashion after the old order fell away. The signs are hardly in English (except for stores hoping to attract western tourists) and having been around for a long time the locals don’t seem to need street signage. The names they use for districts are even more confusing; for example there may be three with the same name but only identifiable by the direction they are facing.
If you get lost, it’s best to jump into a tuk-tuk and flash your hotel business card which had better be in the Beijing dialect or Mandarin. But before you do so, let us tell you a little about what goes on behind the crumbling hutong walls to tempt you to return. When we are finished you may become even more lost, but this time for words.
Traditional hutong “Siheyuan” dwellings overlook courtyards into which individual structures face. The primary home is to the north, while those to the west and east are side-houses where other family members live. A series of indoor pathways connect these spaces to the southern gatehouse, where there is a screen to keep back evil spirits that may be lurking outside in the street.
Today’s “evil spirits” are more likely to be property developers knocking on the door and keen to turn humble hutongs into skyscrapers, like the ones we wrote about before.