The last hutongs of Beijing

Su was 10 years old when she was forced to leave her home, as the government was going to destroy it. She was raised in a hutong, one of Beijing’s traditional neighbourhoods that date back to the 13th century, first established during the Yuan dynasty.

“They were courtyard houses passed down from generation to generation, and even if they often lacked private toilets and fast internet the atmosphere was just unique: it was a community-based life where everybody helped everybody and people lived life in the streets, playing mahjong or drinking tea. They were the soul of Beijing since the ancient times of imperial China.”

It’s the same old story: destroy the old to build the new. And when in the 90’s Beijing started its rush to modernity, the city needed space to build towering residential complexes and transform itself into an ultramodern urban sprawl.
But this came at a cost to 500.000 residents who got displaced, and to 8000 hutongs that were torn down forever. The government compensated the families with little money, which means they could only afford to move to the city’s outskirts, outside the fifth or sixth ring roads. Very far from where they used to live before.

Today only 1000 hutongs have survived in Beijing, and although some of them are now protected areas, they are not as authentic as before: they have turned into shopping and touristy streets where properties have been transformed into cafes. The hutongs that preserve the traditional Chinese way of life are now more of an endangered species: they are residential areas for the less affluent workers in Beijing, and for the last generation of elderly people who still wish to continue living there. You will still see them today, sitting in the narrow alleyways smoking cigarettes and playing mahjong. They don’t want to let go because of their emotional attachment, and because in the hutong they are not alone: the neighbours will always be there to take care of them.

“Maybe it’s human nature: people tend to get nostalgic and think that the past was better than the present. When I was a child I was living in a hutong, and I wanted to live in a high building. Then I actually moved to a high building, and I started to miss my little hutong.”


As a girl born during China’s one child policy, growing up in a hutong felt less lonely for Su: she didn’t have any brothers or sisters, but she would always have children to play with in the streets.

“I remember that I used to come back from school very hungry, but by the time I had reached my home I was already full, because the other families in the streets were offering me dumplings and baozi from their tables. Now, in my tall building, I don’t even know my neighbours. We don’t sit outside anymore, we sit inside in the air conditioning. Modernity is good, but it makes us all a bit more lonely.”

Yes, modernity is good, and it improves our standard of living. But it does come at a cost to some people – and on our path towards growth we lose something on the way.


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