Beijing’s Vanishing Hutong: Last House Standing

2008: Qianbajia and Houbajia Villages. My way in to college every day.

2008: I remember it clearly like it was yesterday. The route from the apartment to Tsinghua University would take me through the warren of narrow streets, alleyways and dirt tracks of the Qianbajia and Houbajia villages the likes I’d never seen before. This twice daily half an hour overload of information to the senses was everything I’d come to China for.

It took ages to work out how to get through to the other side but talk about worth it! Thousands of tiny buildings roughly thrown together, an attestation to the resourceful nature of Chinese people. Households all recycle. Used materials get stacked outside stored under tarpaulins saved for maintaining their property, bike or for growing plants. This is Beijing’s Hutong.

Qianbajia and Houbajia Villages: Now Gone

Maybe twenty five percent of the population of Beijing still lives in the hutong and it’s been this way for centuries though as Beijing’s population continues to sky-rocket, these areas are now rapidly being torn down. In less than a week nearly the whole of Qianbajia and Houbajia was demolished in order to make way for new development. I couldn’t believe it! A way of life gone forever!

Last remaining building of the Qianbajia and Houbajia villages still defiantly standing (click to enlarge)

My first reaction was somewhat misplaced. A Westernised romantic view of the hutong, the local people hounded out by the wicked ‘powers that be’ and the sad destruction of a bygone era. Actually, it turns out that people around here have a special reason to keep smiling if they are asked to move on. Indeed they get a couple of choices. The first is to move to a new place with the ability to move back again after the building has finished and pay half the cost of a new place. The other is to receive from what many locals tell me around here, is a substantial pay-out.

The new apartments on the Qianbajia and Houbajia site (click to enlarge)

The honest truth about many of the villages here are they are so incredibly poor that people live in really filthy conditions. They only have public shared toilets and when you use one you will turn instantly green, especially during a nice hot summer’s day. When it’s cold, life is harder than hard and keeping warm is all existence is about. Who’d want to bring their kid up in that?

I cycled home in a torrential downpour through a hutong area the other night. The whole area became instantly flooded and the amount of rubbish and ‘matter’ in the water was ridiculous. I could feel myself instantly going down with some foul germ from hell and was sick for days after.

Map of SiJie

map of SiJie: click to enlarge

Reality aside, from the Qianbajia and Houbajia the next hutong in line is the SiJie Village right around the corner from where I live. Hemmed in between the Qinghe River, G6 and 5th Ring Road, SiJie continues as if it’s trying to go on unnoticed; a hidden vibrant community filled with life. That it will be levelled for new apartment blocks is pure speculation, but I can’t help but worry how long it’s going to be before it’s gone. Based on how things move and change so quickly in Beijing I’m not holding much hope.

SiJie Village

I love SiJie and consider myself lucky to be around while it’s still here.

 

53 replies

  1. I was in the Hutong in 2007. The part I visited was surprisingly clean and well-kept, although obviously dirt-poor. I had a meal at a family home whilst I was there and it was simple but absolutely delicious food. Because I am blonde and very pale skinned, I held quite some fascination for the local people and the elderly women would stop me to stroke my hair and skin. It was actually a very humbling experience and something I will never forget.

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    • I think the plan is to keep the hutong in the central part of Beijing. It’s much cleaner and the housing is built properly not just thrown together. Thanks for reading and yes, China is an addictive country that’s for sure 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. We stayed in the Lu Song Yuan Hotel at Nanchang Hutong 22 in 2004. This was prior to the Olympics and we had heard they were tearing down the hutong and modernizing the living quarters. We wanted to capture the charm and get a closer look at the authentic buildings and the friendly people in the area.
    Leslie

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi there Leslie. Thanks for reading. Yes it’s really nice over there. Really vibrant area. I think they are renovating that area a bit but I think it’s going to be there to stay. That area is an internal organ of inner Beijing, with the lakes and temples nearby. Anything outside the 4th ring road is fair game though.

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  3. I can see why you love this place. It is filled with life and wonder and must stimulate every creative bone in your body! The rewards for being uprooted are so much better than the ones that go along with the American policy of imminent domain.

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  4. Hi Andy , here I am sitting in a bus terminal in Seoul reading your books some more — got waylaid with a book about the ” fall of Japan ” great history
    Bout 75% thru your great rollicking read — laughing about your experience of teaching in Korea and now in Mongolia with you. Great account – will write a review as soon as I finish. Will appeal to those with a true gene for adventure

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi there Bruce. Really glad your enjoying it. I can give you Mr A’s phone number if you fancy waiting all day LOL. Its a fast read > You can blitz through Mongolia in a day. How was SKorea compared to Japan? BTW not blogging at the moment as I’m spending all my time storyboarding for a fictional series. Will be back on WP in a few weeks and yes would really appreciate the review. Safe safe journeys my man 🙂

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  5. Great pics and story Andy . I have found the huge populations of Seoul and Busan make me yearn for the smaller cities and towns of Korea and Japan . Just not a city person I guess – but as you say heading into Mongolia heads into unknown comfort zones

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    • Hiya Bruce. So are you heading to Mongolia then? That sure is the place to be for lack of anything urban. Things marked on the map are normally just a cluster of wooden huts and roads are just dirt tracks in the land ha ha

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      • I did try and go back to the UK in 2013 well by that I mean I did get back there; car, flat and job etc…but it just didnt work out. The UK is just too damned expensive and the missus couldnt get any work anywhere. It was clearly because she is Chinese. I may go back and have another go at it in a different way. As for the future its an open book. I suffer from anxiety and only get it once in a while here in China whereas in the UK its a continual wave. I’ve dedicated a chapter to it in book 2 which I’ll put together at the end of this year.

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      • Ok — will look forward to book 2 too – interesting that your writing style on short WP posts is very different from the raw travel impressions of book one ( like both ) but reconciling them . You are good at capturing the moments in your WP posts .
        Anxiety — I suffer too , think it has deep seated evolutionary origins and maybe the Asian cultures have better coping mechanisms – bit zen .

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      • Hiya Bruce > I guess when your not on the move things change a lot. I cant wait to get back on the road again. Bring it on is what I say mate. Anxiety > phew > I get it when I’m walking down the road on my day off > I call it UFA Unfounded Anxiety or Self Created Anxiety. What’s yours all about?

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      • Similar – defies rational explanation as there is nothing the actually worry about — but an adventure is a great cure for it – the dreaming it – doing it and reflecting on what happened in the recall . Staying on the move works well – need something to be happening

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      • Hey there Bruce > Cheers for the write up on Amazon and really glad you liked it. RE Anxiety: Yes you cant beat a good adventure to take you out of your daily head traumas. I guess when you’re on the road you get to see a wider picture other than your own dim little sphere. Movement works > I used to go caving to sort my head out. Rain walking is another good one. Where are you these days Bruce?

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      • Hiya Bruce > What a perfect way to end your trip. I guess your in Japan right now. What are you up to with the missus then? Camper vans >>> mmmm >>> pure bliss!

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      • Yeah — but it going yo be something of a surprise for her – hope it ends well – a risk. She knows I’m organising the transport — but not a ” Wicked ” brand aussy camper van . Should be a riot .
        I agreed to let her organise where to go – I’m in charge of transportation . I’m a bit worried .

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