Check out any major tour operator's
program for Beijing and you are sure to find the following
all-but-mandatory stops: the Ming Tombs, the Forbidden City, the
Great Wall and ... the hutongs. Hutongs? Clients might very well
wonder what in the world hutongs are. Even if they don't, I'll
answer the question anyway.
Hutongs are the
narrow, twisting streets and alleys of Beijing's "old city," along
which a maze of ancient courtyard dwellings and walled gardens,
some dating to the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), maintain increasingly
tenuous ties to ancient tradition.
A hutong itself
is by definition no wider than about 33 feet -- the narrowest is
said to be a mere 15 inches across -- and some hutongs put San
Francisco's famous Lombard Street to shame by having more than 20
twists and turns from start to finish.
anachronistic blasts from the past survive, at long last with the
help of the government, in the face of implacable urban renewal
projects that continue to remake the face of the city with broad
new avenues, spectacular high-rises, shopping mega-malls and
magnificent Olympic venues.
according to official government figures, only 1,000 of the 3,000
hutongs that existed in Beijing in the 1950s still
Built in the
shadow of the Forbidden City, the original residences, or siheyuan,
in the hutongs comprised four one-story structures built around a
quadrangular common courtyard. Owned by the wealthy,
aristocrats and kin to royalty, these upscale, traditional,
single-family compounds maintained their integrity until the early
20th century, when the feudal system of China was challenged by
revolution, invasion, occupation and social change.
government says it rents out 90% of the existing hutong residences,
most of which have been subdivided and then subdivided again into
tight, multifamily dwellings where the inhabitants live cheek by
jowl. The 10% that are privately owned represent prize possessions
of the privileged elite in space-starved Beijing.
But even in the
tight quarters of the most modest of the hutong residences, where
some families can trace their roots back hundreds of years, a
neighborliness and a community of interest survive.
Here in the
hardscrabble hutongs, wizened old-timers sit outside at rickety
tables playing mahjong, cards and chess, if they are not otherwise
engaged, it seems, in practicing the relaxing and repetitive
motions that characterize the disciplines of tai chi chuan
abound in the hutongs, selling steamed dumplings, grilled meats and
cold drinks as well as typical tourist-trade souvenirs such as
knock-off watches ($1 for a handsome "Rolex") and Major League
Baseball caps, ivory chopsticks, intricately designed fans and
homemade crafts such as hand-painted snuff bottles.
sitting outside in plush couches and stuffed chairs haphazardly set
up on the curb as if they had been carried en masse from a used
furniture store, sip beers as they impassively watch the passing
A tour through
the hutongs, including an excursion alongside the majestic Shichahi
Lake in the heart of downtown Beijing, is usually conducted in a
two-seater pedicab or "trishaw." A trishaw is an updated, and
somewhat more civilized, version of a rickshaw in that it is
powered by hard-working locals, who pedal rather than pull the
three-wheeled cart forward through the ins and outs of the
Less chatty than
a New York cab driver -- there was a language gap, after all -- my
pedicab operator made his feelings clear when he patted my
all-too-ample belly, rolled his eyes and then hung his head in
Tour group staple
operators include pedicab tours of the hutongs in their itineraries
and several feature other activities well worth the
example, offers a pedicab option as well as a family-made lunch in
a typical home. The home I visited on such an outing was modest,
clean and crowded, with the entire lunch, which seemed more like an
informal banquet than a mere meal, cooked on a simple two-burner
range in a kitchen that couldn't have measured more than four feet
wide by four feet deep. I'd like to see TV's Iron Chef make it
happen under those conditions.
(China Travel Service) includes a meeting with local residents in
its hutong option, and Globus adds a visit to a daycare center and
a retirement community.
Discovery has a trishaw and tea with a local family deal, and
General Tours World Traveler offers a "make a friend" program that
includes a pedicab ride, a meeting with a family and visits to a
community center and a school.
features the pedicab tour, lunch with a family and an opportunity
"to learn the art of dumpling making."
Kent, for its part, expands the standard pedicab tour to enable
participants "to travel by pedicab (or peddle
To contact reporter Joe Rosen, send e-mail to [email protected].