Written by Annlin, High School/Pre-College Student Correspondent for JSA Diplomat Program in Beijing, Summer 2018*
On July 12, 2018, we traveled back in time to a 胡同 (hútong). Hutongs are small, traditional neighborhoods in Beijing. There are only a few remaining and can mostly be found near the Forbidden City. They were initially structured with large courtyards surrounded by four buildings — each building housing one family. When constructed at least 50 years ago, there was no consideration for plumbing. The winter in Beijing can also be very cold and the summer can be extremely hot. Hutongs are poorly insulated and there is rarely modern technology since only the wealthy could afford improvements such as air conditioners. But these small alleyways were surprisingly filled with cars. How could one possibly be able to squeeze through the narrow pathways? I was surprised to see a Ferrari there. Imagine getting that scratched up!
But despite the large range of economic status, it is clear that the hutongs house close-knit communities.
The living conditions may be poor, but that doesn’t mean that the people could not make the best out of their situation. It brought me joy to watch the children run down the streets with their adorable safety hats, laughing with their friends. The residents casually chatted away with the others about their day and their life. Short, cute grandmas would sit and relax outside the gates of their courtyard or outside the stores. Men would play cards and chat on the street. Cats and dogs would roam around and lay comfortably in shady spots. The streets were quiet, yet full of life at the same time.
Being in a hutong took me back to the 土楼 (tǔlóu) in Longyan. A tulou is a large circular communal residence that is occupied by a clan group. The sense of community in a hutong is very similar to that of a tulou. When I went to visit the tulous, I was able to visit some relatives who are in their late 90s.
At first, one might believe that it’s terrible for the elderly to live in such structures. But although they are living in poor conditions, they seem at peace with their life. They might be lonely without their kids, but they don’t have no one — their community became their family. They would wander the streets and ask anyone how their children were doing. Fortunately, I was able to witness the same in the hutongs. I wouldn’t say that the people are completely unhappy with their lifestyle.
Unlike in the more modern areas, the community in a hutong brings greater warmth to one’s spirit, whether you’re a visitor like me or a resident. After all, home is where family is.