Project updated by Alice Fang, Aiwa Musihua, Caroline Nowacki, Qihan (Philip) Luo
Every hutong we visit seems steeped in stories. There are different stories for different times of day—different groups of people catching the breeze by their doors, different tones and colors like the rush of life when children are let loose from the neighboring elementary school. We are, at once, participants and observers. As researchers, we take in the life and the sights around us, interviewing elderly couples sitting by their doorway, and stopping to ask children where they play. But needless to say, we have likely also become the object of dinnertime conversation for the families of people we interviewed.
Static scenes in the hutong present stories begging to be told. Here, a Buick is parked next to chickens, and a trash can with red wine, half eaten 馒头 [buns], and other trash.
Just a few steps from Liu Li Chang East street (the main tourist street), old stone lions stand next to carved placards. There are visible signs of renovation and demolition, rubble right next to recently repaired antiquated-looking old structures.
This man is 92 years old. He’s lived in this Siheyuan, owned by his family, for 60 years.
At 3:10pm, the children rush out of the neighboring elementary school. The streets are filled with lively chatter. Grandparents sit outside, toy and popsicle vendors get ready.
Our friend plays with the neighboring children walking home from school.
The hutongs sings a different song at night. This lady takes us to her home, which is over 100 years old, bought by her father-in-law, a famous painter.
Melons grow from vines hung on telephone lines.
A small surprise awaits us. This is the capital city’s smallest opera house, hidden in the outskirts of a hutong by Liu Li Chang.
Our friend, the one-man singer, musician, and storyteller, telling us about his past life as a performer in a government company. Though he has no need to, he’s rented a small room to share the ancestral tradition of which he is the last to carry.
- Tension between residents’ economic means and desire for cultural preservation. For residents who live outside the main tourist streets, their desire to protect their home or pass down their culture is limited by lack of commercial interest. Few tourists venture into the residential hutongs, where we found our opera friend or artist descendant friend. There is lack of demand because people don’t realize they exist.
- Love-hate relationship with the space. Most of our interviewees have been elderly and lived in the community for a long time. Many have mentioned getting used to walking to the public restrooms and the inconveniences of the hutongs. Some complain about the homes falling apart and how the government only does surface-level renovation and don’t touch the inside. Yet they also speak of the convenience of being in the center of the city, of walking to the market and the park. Sometimes, there are sentiments of moving out into a high rise, of being able to freely park cars, but neither one nor the other is clearly better. The long-time residents prefer the simplicity of no change.
- Safety and community. Spontaneous meetups and conversations fill the hutongs we’ve walked through around early afternoon. Grandparents stand or sit outside waiting for friends to pass. Others walk around and incidentally come upon acquaintances with whom they strike up a conversation. A majority of kids walk home without parents or guardians in sight. Elderly folk and storeowners act as human watchdogs. There is a feeling of safety in the small pedestrian streets. Electric bikes and tricycles are come often, cars are rare. No cars were seen during the peak coming home from school hours.
An empathy map based on our observations and interviews
“We’re just laobaixing. Food, sleep, retirement money. That’s all that concerns us.”
The image of Beijing and China portrayed to foreigners needs to be pristine and filtered. (The lady and her husband scolded me for translating her criticisms to Caroline, saying things like that remain “within the family”). Our conversation ended by her saying 我们这都是瞎说。
Stand in front of their gate, watching the foreign tourists on tricycle tours. Eager to talk with us as we walk by. Jokes that the government only washes the face and leaves the ears dirty – that they haven’t fixed the interiors that need to be fixed, but only have painted a veneer.
Curious, wanting to share grievances and opinions but also having a guarded relationship with her thoughts & political views.