Bicycle Diaries: 胡同 - the hutong tour

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胡同 - the hutong tour

To continue from Saturday's post - I rolled the streets of Beijing nearly every afternoon with my trusty guide, Ms. Rong Kun Kong, a student teacher at Beijing Normal University. As you can see, she's an enthusiastic biker. Her Giant TCR 6900 definitely put my shabby Flying Pigeon to shame. So much so, she politiely offered to trade. I declined. As a 老外 on a bike, this laowai, or foreigner, was already going to attract enough attention without maxing out his lycra factor.

After my last workshop with the student teachers, she and I would hook up for a meandering tour of the city's many 胡同, or hutongs. The word is Mongolian for water-well. Nearly all Chinese villages and towns originally grew up around them.

In urban areas like Beijing, the hutongs consist of 四合院, or siheyuan. These traditional courtyard homes are connected to one another by alleys. Together they form a tightly-knit neighborhood. Hutongs come in all shapes and sizes; the smallest being a mere 70 cm across, just wide enough for a single person to traverse. Although Beijing has changed a great deal over the last 500 years, the hutong remain much the same as during the Ming and Qing dynasties.

Needless to say, the city's hutongs reminded me a lot of Chicago neighborhoods. Like Chicago, each has its own personality. Unlike most of our neighborhoods, they're not unique in terms of ethnicity or religion. Rather, they tend to be organized around specific occupations: butchers, bakers, candlestick makers...

Neighbors typically rely on bikes for both transportation and commerce. Everyone knows everyone else along the alleys since they regularly gather together to buy, sell, and gossip. The face-to-face intimacy of daily life is especially rich in the hutongs where families have dwelled in the same siheyuan for generations.

This also means that neighbors are extremely curious when a laowai rolls into their hutong. At one point I blew a tire. We were imediately sorrounded by a dozen people all pointing and chattering away. Ms. Kong quickly took control of the situation asking directions to the nearest bike mechanic.

Meanwhile several high school students took advantage of the opportunity to practice their English with me. Our diaolgue though was decidely one-sided. The student's approach was to completely exhaust their meager store of English in one shot. Each would ask, Hi! How are you? and without pausing for me to answer, would reply I am fine! I thought, how polite, they don't want to burden me with an obligation to respond.

Such heartfelt hospitality was not uncommon throughout our hutong tour. The bike mechanic didn’t want my money. I was his first laowai customer from America. All the same, I was a bit sad. The hutongs are being gentrified at a phenomenal pace. And with them, their neighborly community life is disappearing.

Perhaps gentrification is the wrong word. The hotungs are being buldozed to make room for huge commercial and residential buildings. Imagine the Trump Tower currently being built downtown along the Chicago River. Chinese developers are in the habit of building 5 to 7 Trump-like towers in one go. The hotung residents along with their bikes are then either resettled in these buildings or sent off to other high-rise apartments in new suburbs.

The sheer scale of destruction is mind-boggling, even for the some Chinese. Community activists have started to oppose this brutal gentrification by exploiting the Communist government's passion for the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. They are making the case that loawai tourists will want to experience traditional hutong hospitality. Unfortunately, most of the 350+ hutongs continue to be threatened by the bulldozers.

If you haven't been to China, go and go soon. Don't wait for the 2008 Summer Olympics. There may not be any hutongs left. Or those remianing will be little more than Chinese Disney Worlds. In case, a trip is out of the question, I'm embedding the following hutong bike tour vid from YouTube.

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