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|Written by Adam J. Smith|
|Tuesday, 04 May 2010 00:00|
I take the escalator out from Beijing's inner-city airport express station and arrive in the near frozen afternoon air of China's capital. The street outside is overwhelming. I'm surrounded by buildings that resemble Darth Vader: battle ships of the globalized world, places sheathed in reflective glass and polished stone. I scan both sides of the street looking for taxis; I approach a couple who demand 200RMB to take me to my hotel. I refuse and walk a little further and find a taxi driver less opportunistic and unwilling to rip off 'gweilos' (white people). He takes me to my hotel in Baochao, one of Beijing's last remaining hutongs.
The hutong was one of China's experiments with the danwei theory. The socialist danwei complex was created to place a heavy emphasis on interdependency. Each community was responsible for the education of its children, for the disposal of waste, and the manufacturing of products. Each person and each family, respectively, were given unique roles within the greater community of hutongs. One family would focus on recycling bottles, another on weaving, another would run a restaurant. This system is still present to some extent today; though it is no longer an enforced life/work package, the older generation is choosing to retain their way of life within the hutongs, while the young are generally moving out.
On the way to the hutong, I barely recognize Beijing. The last time I visited was in January 2006, when the city resembled an epic construction site, building all of the infrastructure and mega-hotels needed to pull off the greatest Olympics of all time.
Even the hutongs had changed. Driving through them, they have come to resemble a sort of trendy hangout spot for the Chinese version of hipsters; who, as a matter of fact, are like hipsters everywhere -- iPhone in one pocket, cigarettes in the other, ridiculously slim, skinny jeans clad, a 'green' grocery bag advertising a local band (that may or may not exist) slung over their shoulder, donning ray ban glasses and a long scarf, on the way to some off-beat little bar or coffee shop.
Hipsterdom is a form of gentrification that inherits formally historic/run-down districts, and transforms them into spectacles of gift shops selling some of the most pointless junk known to man. This effect is not just the case in Beijing, take any major city in the world: London's Brick Lane, New York's East Village.
Despite the hipster/touristic transformation of Beijing's hutongs, they have, for the most part, remained intricate and interconnected communities. There are the tiny hair 'salons' that fit no more than three people, the neighborhood dentist, the snack shops, bicycle repair stations, and teahouses. There are groups of old people everywhere playing mah jong in courtyards, wooden doors that reveal decades worth of paint, and bicycles everywhere.
I stayed at the Beijing City Courtyard Hotel and would recommend it to anyone. It is old danwei home, situated around a courtyard. Each of the rooms looks out onto the yard. The morning after my first night, I stepped out of the wooden front doors to be confronted with a hoard of German tourists taking pictures of the hotel's 200 year-old entrance. It's a difficult place to get to by car or taxi, which at first seemed annoying because taxi drivers were reluctant to travel there, but thinking back, the lack of cars was refreshing. The car has ripped apart cities across the world, allowances have been made for them above the pedestrian and cyclist, which has proved to be ecologically suicidal, culturally degrading, and humiliating for those who cannot afford or do not wish to own a car.
I felt comfortable within Beijing's hutongs. For me, they represented a hopeful environment because within them and many historic districts around the planet we can see where we've been, which suggests the direction we may head. I hope for the sake of history and the future, Beijing's ambitions to become a Chinese version of sprawling Atlanta or Houston fail to devour the last remaining hutong communities that are the identity of Beijing and the Chinese people respectively.
Adam J. Smith is a British ex-pat, living, teaching and writing in China, while exploring the changes taking shape in this nation.
For videos and more information visit: www.adamjsmith.net