Nanlouguxiang hutong is alive. The warmer than average temperature has brought young locals out of their homes and tonight they roam the narrow streets of one of the city’s most famous attractions. Well-dressed men and women buzz from stall to stall sampling the weird treats on offer. One man passes by me holding an entire crumbed squid upon a skewer followed by a girl tucking into frozen yoghurt that rivals the size of her head.
“Hutongs aren’t really where you can get to know the real Beijing” says my friend, Christina, who has brought me here. Currently, she is flicking through the English menu of a Chinese restaurant trying to select some traditional meals for me to try. “They aren’t authentic anymore.”
But how much more is there to the ‘authentic’ hutong? The story of its origins have been regurgitated enough times in Beijing guide books that most tourists could remember the facts off the top of their heads. Open any travel website and you will learn that the word ‘hutong’ is derived from the Mongolian word ‘hottong’ that means ‘a well’, dating back to the times when communities would sprout from a single, central water source. Type the word ‘hutong’ into an image search and you will see that they are formed by lines of small houses built around common courtyards, that create mazes of narrow alleyways. Their existence is well documented.
The hutong is praised for preserving what remains of traditional Chinese culture beyond the temples, palaces and museums. And indeed if you wander in to a residential hutong today you can still see men riding bicycles around the narrow streets and neighbors chattering away through windows that are barely half a meter apart.
But like many cultural relics there is a growing obsession with the preservation of the hutong in their original state. The tragedy of their demise is a story that foreigners hear time and time again. Understandably, the anxiety that followed the near extermination of hutongs during China’s monumental development at the turn of the century has lingered. The people here still fear for the safety of their treasured streets and fiercely reject any transformation they undergo.
For me, the ‘new-tongs’ as locals like to call them, actually do a better job at representing Beijing as it is today. While the skeleton of tradition remains, hutongs like Nanlouguxiang capture the essence of a Beijing that is shaking off its introverted past and is curious, adventurous and eager to learn about the world around it. Though many scoff at the rows of fast food chains you find here, they have undeniably become a valuable part of Beijing youth culture.
So when a woman turns to me in the line for a Korean noodle dish and says “this one isn’t local”, I stay in the line. You can never go wrong following the people, and the people here flock to the new-tongs.