Suitcase and World: Beijing hutong. The 'hood gone by.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Beijing hutong. The 'hood gone by.

ast night when I got back to my room there was a message waiting from me from someone named Ekco. Who? The note read to call her back with regards to my tour for the following day. So he/she was my local guide for the next day. I returned the call and made plans to meet in the hotel lobby the next day.

I met Ekco in the lobby of the hotel and she led me to the car. It’s such a luxury to be able to have a car and driver all the myself. Of course, I was going to make the most of it!
Before I left DC, I had made all the arrangements for this day. The agenda was to see a couple of hutong homes in the morning and visit the Bell and Drum Towers in the afternoon. A relatively light tour agenda compared to all my previous days.

We were headed back to the hutong area near Houhai Park. What should have been a relatively short drive turned into almost an hour long ride. It was rush hour in Beijing and the streets were clogged with cars. What used to be a city dominated by bicyclists is now one where cars and other gasoline powered vehicles rule. Traffic congestion and smog in Beijing is as worse, if not more so, than comparable major metropolitan areas in the US.

I slumped into my seat and watched the world go by outside my car window. We soon arrived into a hutong. The driver deposited us on a quiet tree lined street and Ekco and I walked a short distance before she stopped outside a house. A massive set of wooden doors graced the entryway. Above were four *knobs* that indicated this was the house of someone *important*. The *knobs* are akin to the stars that adorn the shirts and jackets of US military officers…more stars equals higher rank. Above the *knobs* was a wooden plaque with Manchurian lettering on it. Neither Ecko nor I read Manchurian so we had no idea what it read.

The doors were locked. Ecko called the owner who turned out to be just a few streets away out for an early morning walk with his dog.

While we waited, Ecko gave me a bit of background about the house. Apparently, the house has been in the same family for centuries but because hutong houses are soaring in value, some family members want to sell it while others want to hold on to it. So, now the family is divided over their sentiment about the house and rifts are forming in family relationships as a result.

A short while after Ecko called the owner, he arrived with his dog in tow. He unlocked the door and I followed close behind as he entered. I was greeted by a small Chinese courtyard in the entryway.

Off the entryway was the main square shaped courtyard that is typical of Chinese architecture. On each of the four sides of the square was a small house. Chinese tradition is that the matriarch and patriarch of the family occupy the house on the south side of the square. Their children would occupy the east and west houses and the north house is the shared living space.

The owner is a bird lover so hanging all around the roof eaves that overhand the courtyard were bamboo bird cages. It was nice to hear the chirping sound of song birds. The owner also had two magpies (??) who were so well trained they could follow voice commands. Unbelievable!

Utilitarian items were artistically placed about the courtyard including an antique wooden cart creating beautiful little vistas for the eyes to absorb. This owner knows how to reveal the beauty in even the simplest of objects!

Ecko and I entered into a couple of the houses to see the insides. Each house was decorated with Chinese furnishings and decorative items from days gone by. I don’t think anyone in modern China sits on these beautiful but oh so uncomfortable rosewood chairs anymore or sleeps in a bed as elaborate as this one.

The owner even arranged a Chinese calligraphy desk on a rosewood desk....just as the writer might have left them.

As I lingered in the courtyard, I imagined what this place would have been like, occupied by a family. Children running around the place, playing hide and seek in all the nooks and crannies. The family matriach tending to her potted plants in their beautiful ceramic pots. The family patriarch sitting at his desk practicing his calligraphy strokes. Servants, yes there were servants, scurrying about performing their daily duties. What a happy place it would have been!

These days, the hutongs of Beijing are being razed in the name of economic progress. To some degree, that really saddens me. I've been told that China is working to preserve some of the hutongs and these unique homes. I hope they don't falter in that effort because I strongly feel that every generation has to appreciate those that came before them and these are the sorts of places that bring that history to life.

Since Ekco and I had essentially *invaded* someone's home just so I could satisfy my curiosity, we didn't stay long. With Ekco interpreting into Mandarin, I thanked the owner for allowing me to visit and to encourage him to fight to keep the home.