A Sinologist/ DJ/ Teacher’s Love for the Hutongs
Travel to the heart of Beijing and you will find yourself immersed within a labyrinth of winding alleyways and small shops. You will hear raucous conversations, bicycle wheels, and the occasional honk of a horn. You will smell fried foodstuffs, fresh fruits, and steamed goodies. You will see brick houses and courtyards with red doors and shingled roofs, old bicycles and three-wheeled carts, and storefronts selling all your daily necessities. What I’m describing, of course, is the hutong. It is the soul of Beijing; a signature landmark as iconic as the Great Wall or the Forbidden City. No trip to Beijing is complete without a visit to the hutongs. So, what exactly makes these small alleyways so popular and loved? What makes Beijing unique and appealing? What’s happening to the hutongs as the city steps into a more modern era?
To explore these questions, Kyle Schaefer, a sinologist, history teacher at Tsinghua International School (THIS), and a DJ shares his story and life in Beijing and her hutongs.
Kyle first arrived in China in 2000 after studying Chinese history in college and graduate school. Moving to Beijing in 2004, he fell in love with the city and its underground music scene.
“To come here at the time and see the birth of underground music in China was wild. I worked in music radio and ended up DJing. That was a time in which the underground music scene was really exploding with so many bands and venues. This was not just the capital of China, but was also the rock and roll capital of China. We used to joke that all the galleries were in Shanghai, but all the artists were in Beijing,” says Kyle about his early impression of Beijing.
Learning about Chinese history was like finding a doorway to an entirely unknown world. The sheer scale of new information drew Kyle to become a sinologist. “I’ve always been particularly interested in the interplay between the orthodox, or the mainstream, and the richness of minority subcultures, or the heterodox. Beijing seemed like a place for that when I first arrived. There were millions of people walking in the same direction with similar life paths and goals, but scattered here and there you’d encounter these iconoclasts, mostly young artists, who were moving against the stream of mainstream culture. That to me was always incredibly fascinating,” Kyle explains.
Kyle was a resident in one of the city’s historical hutongs for seven years. “When I first arrived in Beijing, hutongs were not really on the map for many people. In the 2000s, people started to realize that there was a richness to the quality of life in the hutongs that couldn’t be found in other parts of industrially developed Beijing. The hutongs are like a series of villages nestled in the heart of the city. At the time I was living way out east, but I found myself getting into a car and driving for an hour to come into the hutongs to DJ and see bands every Friday night. After a little while I realized I should move to where all the things I liked were. For a long time, other than for work, I existed in two blocks from my house because everything I wanted about the city was right there.”
The closest thing Kyle could compare life in the hutongs to is village life. “You’re put into such close proximity with all kinds of people. It resists the kind of atomization that we find in other parts of the city. You’re constantly bumping into your neighbors and there’s a kind of street-level life that’s hard to replicate in apartments,” he says.
So what makes hutong life so attractive? According to Kyle, in the mid-2000s, there was a real outburst of creativity, and a lot of interesting things were happening in the hutongs. The hutongs at that time were a blind palette for ideas. If you had a little bit of money, you could rent out a 10 square meter room and turn it into whatever your idea was. As people explored those ideas, it created a community. The Olympics also really helped to put Beijing on the map for a lot of foreigners. When foreigners moved to Beijing, they were attracted to the hutongs because it felt like a more authentic experience, more like the China they imagined. The rest of the city had a disconcerting sameness, but the hutongs were something unique in China and the world.
Life in Beijing’s hutongs isn’t for everyone, but most will agree that they hold significance in the city, whether it be historical or social. It’s a way of life that’s woven into Beijing’s character and worth preserving.
For Kyle, the hutongs ought to be preserved as a kind of laboratory for what is possible in Beijing. “They offer urban planners a lot of insight into how the city of Beijing could be made more sustainable, more socially connected, and even safer. There isn’t a single vision for what they ought to be. City planners, residents, and visitors all may have very different aspirations for what the hutongs are or should be. I think the best possible outcome is that no one vision ever comes to eclipse all the others.”
Over the years Beijing has changed so much from when Kyle first arrived 20 years ago and shows no intentions of slowing down its development. It’s a city of amazing contradictions where both ancient and modern coexist side-by-side and a quick drive from the city center to the hutongs can transport you back in time.
Hutongs are indicative of Beijing, but the rapid modernization of Beijing is leaving these patches of the past under threat. Next time you go out, pay attention to these small alleyways, for you may not find them again. Treasure these symbols of an older Beijing, their nostalgic beauty and down-to-earth simplicity. Beijing’s hutongs are priceless and irreplaceable.
Images: Kyle Schaefer