Hutong Life in NLGX (胡同） Posted by Stephen on Aug 31, 2011 in Culture
Following Sasha’s recent post on Beijing’s NLGX district or 南锣鼓巷 (nán luó gǔ xiàng), I thought I would write a little about my experience living in NLGX in a traditional or 传统 (chuántǒng) open courtyard house, called a 胡同 (hútòng). Hutongs are essentially open courtyard building complexes, centered around
The translation for “hutong” literally means a narrow street alley, but entails the small, walled, open courtyard complex inside as well. Hutongs are centered around this courtyard, which is essentially the living room, with individual bedrooms, kitchens and bathrooms on the periphery. Because of the housing layout, social interactions with family members and neighbors occur throughout the day, just by proximity.As a result, a hutong resident’s sense of community is strongly tied by those interactions. In fact, our landlord once told us: “there are no secrets in a hutong” and boy was she right. Have you ever had someone ask you for your business card while both you and he were squatting over a toilet? Now that is intimacy.
Hutongs were originally built into water alley plans beginning with the Yuan Dynasty but grew into a way of life. For the last half millennlium, hutongs have existed in Beijing as a cultural icon. Unfortunately, from the inception of the Cultural Revolution to present, the number of hutong buildings has plummeted amidst calls for modern day reform, commercialization and housing construction projects. If you want a taste of Beijing prior to industrialization, hutongs are a unique way to live and experience 老北京 (lǎo Běijīng) or “Old Beijing”.
When I arrived in Beijing during August for the 2008 olympics, myself and other laowai friends were dissapointed at the cookie-cutter apartments (all 20 of them) that we had seen. Most were in business districts surrounded by mega-skyscrapers, corporations and western fast food chains. We kept telling our agent we wanted to 体验中国生活 or “experience the real Chinese life” and live close to local hot spots for food and drink. After realizing what we were going for, she directed us to Nanluoguxiang’s hutong district, where supposedly she had built up good guanxi with a landlord.
Upon arrival, we noticed a vast neighborhood of tradtional courtyard houses with an open air “living rooms” in between the kitchen, bedrooms and bathroom. No sooner had we arrived, then two french laowai’s walked in and started a bidding war. This place was beautiful, serene and most importantly, very Chinese. So without much thought, we pulled the landlord and agent aside, and put down an offer. The landlord was so thrilled to have three Chinese speaking Americans in her humble abode, that she gave us a discounted price and to celebrate, called up the rest of her family.
Within hours, grandparents, children, uncles and aunts were at our new house, preparing a dumpling feast for us. Our landlady’s husband showed up, an absolute comic book character of a man, who immediately invited us next door to play majong and drink terrible whiskey. When the game was done, we walked back into our courtyard greeted by about 10 kilograms of dumplings and expecting faces.
We later found that this would be a reoccuring instance, as living in a hutong is the quickest way to incorporate yourself into your Chinese neighborhood. Our landlady and her family would drop by unannounced often, bringing food, drink or just stopping in to chat. Our neighbors quickly learned of the three white boys living down the road, and we’d often bump into them in the public toilets (yes for most hutong’s bathrooms are shared), in the street, or at a nearby restaurant. We also built up quite a reputation with Pijiu Pengyou (啤酒朋友), a one-eye ex military man who bikes the narrow alleyways with a cart of beers, looking to sell them or exchange cash for empty bottles. He never left our hutong without unloading all his beers and reloading all our empties. Ah, the circle of life.
However, because a hutong is traditional and therefore very old, many of the modern day amenities were lacking from our lifestyle. When it rained our courtyard became a swimming pool and our rooms all leaked. When it was hot, you melted. When it was cold, you froze. Our washing machine would constantly overflow and leak into the courtyard, and our bathroom water heater short circuited about every week and came dangerously close to electrocuting us all.
The house was less of a completed living space, and more of a work in progress. During the hot summer months, the old wooden frames on our rooms would expand, often locking us inside. No need to worry though, as our land lady’s husband would show up within an hour sporting hand tools and another bottle of whiskey. This is him filing down our door after one of us got locked inside:
But for all of its problems, living in the hutong district was an absolute blast, and really made us laowai’s step outside of our American culture and comfort zones. Instead of being shunned or ignored by our neighbors, we were accepted as fellow hutong residents. We became regulars at all the local restaurants and bars (and man does NLGX have some incredible places to eat and drink). We became tutors to local students. Hell, even one of our roommates would use our land lady to find dates! Talk about feeling at home in a foreign land.
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