The Hutong Next Door

The Hutong Next Door

Hutongs are traditional neighborhoods in Beijing and other northern Chinese cities. These neighborhoods are created by a series of alleys or narrow streets (called Hutong) that are formed by connecting traditional courtyard residences, called siheyuan.

Beijing’s hutongs offer a window into the traditional culture of the city and its residents, and are some of the most popular destinations for tourists. The first hutongs were built in the Yuan Dynasty, and continued to be built in the Ming, and Qing Dynasties. Unesco estimates that 86 – 90 per cent of Beijing’s hutongs have been demolished since the 1950s due to modernization, the 2008 Olympics, and continuing development in the city. Most now only exist within the Second Ring Road, which surrounds the Forbidden City, Beijing’s city center.

Many of the remaining hutongs have been gentrified, or renovated by the wealthy, celebrities, and government officials. Some have been transformed into shopping streets or tourist attractions, with trendy courtyard hotels, shops, bars, restaurants and cafes.

Nanluoguxiang, Wudaoying, Yandaixiejie, which are located near the Drum and Bell towers, the Shichahai Lakes, and the Lama Temple, are some of the most famous and popular hutongs in Beijing. These hutongs and others like them are vibrant and fun. Historic residences and temples are scattered amongst all the restaurants, cafes, and shops. When family and friends come to town this is where we bring them.

Wudaoying Hutong - Couple posing for wedding photos with Photographer
Wudaoying Hutong - Young couple posing for wedding photos

Young couple posing for wedding photos in front of a cafe at Wudaoying.

Sunday afternoon stroll Nanluoguxiang

Crowds walking Nanluoguxiang on a cool Sunday afternoon.

Young mother walking baby in a Hutong near Nanluoguxiang
Mini car parked on sidewalk
Suger sculpture treats Maker in the Hutongs
Old door

Walking the alleys between Nanluoguxiang and the Shichahai Lakes. locals hang out in front of shops, venders sell everything from sugary sweets shaped like animals; fruits and vegetables, and more.

Chilling over beer at Great Leap Brewing at #6 Doujiao Hutong.

Chilling out at Great Leap Brewery No 6
When strolling down Nanluoguxiang, eating dumplings at Mr. Shi’s, or going to brunch at one of the cafes, it’s easy to forget that we’re not getting the full picture. Occasionally we’ll pass an alleyway or look inside an open door to see bicycles, hanging laundry or hidden entrances, but not much else about the lives of the people living there.
Hutong side alley
Looking into entryway of a residence

Views down a side alley and inside one of the open doors.

Two Hutongs separated by wall
Shirtless man watering plants

One of the more interesting intersections between hutongs. A resident was watering the plants in the alley on the right.

The vast majority of residents of Beijing’s older hutongs live in outdated, often primitive conditions with no central heating and inadequate or no indoor plumbing. We were talking to an expat who had lived in Beijing for years, marveling at the number of public toilets in the hutongs. They told us there were so many because most people didn’t have one at home.

Many locals consider the alleyways slums, that are not worth protecting. An article about the hutongs from the South China Morning Post writes “Local people have coined the term “messy yard” to describe the chaotic living conditions of many hutongs.”

Occasionally while out and about we will stumble upon what looks like an unassuming Hutong in the shadow of a Communist era apartment block, shopping center, or ultra modern high-rise. Some appear to have been renovated and are walled off.

Guy on scooter outside of Hutong near Sanlitun
Hutong entrance near Dongyue Temple
One of the Hutong entrances south of Galaxy SOHO

The Hutong Next Door

One evening while walking home from Tuanjiehu Park I turned off the 3rd Ring Road onto a side street looking for a shortcut back to our complex, and stumbled upon a series of alleyways that looked a lot rougher than I was used to seeing. While these hutongs were new to me, friends and colleagues who lived in Sanlitun and worked in the Central Business District, cut through the alleys almost daily on their way to work or home.

I went back the next morning with my camera to get a better look. I’ve been back several times. Usually I’m just passing through. Sometimes I take photos. Other times I’ve acted as tour guide for friends from out of town.

This series of alleys is surrounded by parking lots and 1970s era apartment blocks to the south and west, a modern luxury hotel, and business high-rises facing the 3rd Ring Road to the east, and more apartment blocks with shops to the north. From the south most passersby would have no idea these hutongs were here.

Keysmith Cart at front entrance of Hutong

Located between a parking lot and an auto detailing center, Guandongdian 1st Alley can easily be mistaken for a driveway.

During warmer months a keysmith’s trike can usually be found close to the entrance.

Another alley intersects with Guandongdian 1st Alley at the first public toilets. The glass covered skyscraper in the background is the posh 5-Star Rosewood Hotel.

Side alley off Guandongdian 1st Alley
Old Hutong off Side alley off Guandongdian 1st Alley
Traffic Police building

A few yards past the public toilet is the Traffic Police station. I’ve walked past it many times and still wonder why its there.

Hutong Barbershop

A group of courtyards with a barbershop sit next to another public toilet close to the intersection with Huashiying E Alley.

Hutong Barbershop and residences  from the cross roads

Two older men saw me looking around and pointed to a side alley. While taking photos a young girl came out from one of the doorways.

Side alley off Guandongdian 1st Alley
Little girl leaving home
Heading east on Huashiying E Alley

Heading east on Huashiying E Alley, I looked up to see a second story that was probably illegally by the owner at some point.

Second Story
Side alley off Huashiying East Alley

Several narrow side alleys split off Huashiying E Alley. I looked down a couple. Some had doors all the way down. In others the doors started further down or around the back.

Scooter parked in side alley
intersection of Huashiying E Alley and Guandongdian 2nd Alley

The intersection of Huashiying E Alley and Guandongdian 2nd Alley

Walking north up Guandongdian 2nd Alley

Walking north up Guandongdian 2nd Alley toward the north entrance.

Looking down one of the side alleys off of the main alley.

Side alley off Guandongdian 2nd Alley

Guandongdian 2nd Alley intersects with a “proper” street with shops and 70s era apartment blocks. The north entrance looks to be the main entrance into the Hutong.

Roadside Bike Repair Shop

A mobile bike and scooter repair shop sits directly across the street from the entrance to the hutong. There are shops on either side.

Waiting in line at the produce market

These hutongs would definitely qualify as “Messy Yard”. Unlike most of the other hutongs I had seen in Beijing these alleys had not been renovated recently, if ever. The buildings in the first side alley looked particularly rough. It’s hard to determine whether these are the original structures, or buildings added during the 1950s and 60s to pack more people in, which happened in most of Beijing’s hutongs. On many of the renovated hutongs I’ve seen, the brick walls are actually brick shaped tiles covering older walls that had been shored up with cement. Here the brick was exposed or painted pink. Many of the residences were not walled off from the main alleyways. Life appeared to be lived on the street. In one of the side alleys a woman was washing her hair in a wash basin in front of one of the doors. Junk and trash were everywhere.

I have walked through this Hutong many times over the past couple of years, usually on my way to Sanlitun. The city began renovations within a month after my first visit. I will cover that and other happenings in another post.

Check out The Last Hutongs Of Beijing And China’s Urban Change from Culture Trip and Razing History: The Tragic Story of a Beijing Neighborhood’s Destruction from a 2012 article in The Atlantic.

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Snow Day in Beijing

Winters in Beijing are cold and dry. Snow is rare, and it usually doesn’t stick. We can count the number of times it has snowed the past three years on one hand. This year it has already snowed twice before the official start of winter.

We were flying to Taipei the first time it snowed in late November, but this time we were home. After waking up to snow on the ground, and watching it snow off and on for hours I grabbed the camera, and took the subway down to Tiananmen Square and the area around the Forbidden City.

Walking down one of the side streets outside of our compound to the subway station.

The snow picks up on the way to the subway station near the corner of Jianguomen and Dongdaqiao.

I chose the wrong security checkpoint line and it took almost 15 minutes to get into Tiananmen Square. By this time it had stopped snowing. Most of the people I encountered at Tiananmen Square were tourists from out of town, and the usual security and military personnel. There were additional cleaning crews to remove the snow.

After a few minutes of walking around and posing for pictures with Chinese tourists from provences that don’t see a lot of foreigners, the snow picked up again.

Tourists flock to the front of the square to get the best photos of the Forbidden City and the color guard protecting the Chinese flag.

The color guard protecting the Chinese flag on the Square facing away from Mao’s portrait on the Forbidden City.

Beijing policeman walking the sidewalk outside the barrier that surrounds Tiananmen Square.

I walked the subway under Jianguomen to the Gate of Heavenly Peace, which is the south entrance to the Forbidden City. Tourists took selfies and photos before entering.

 Two guards with policemen leaving the security area at one the bridges to the Gate of Heavenly Peace.

While taking the photo of this guard and the portrait of Mao, I noticed he was looking at me from the corner of his eye.

Just east of the main entrance to the Forbidden City is an entrance to the Imperial Ancestral Temple, now known as the Working People’s Cultural Palace. It is a smaller scale replica of the Imperial Palace that was used to honor the ancestors during the Ming and Qing Dynasties. 

The layout of the Imperial Ancestral Temple is identical to that of the Forbidden City. It has been called a smaller scale replica of the Imperial palace.

While Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City’s Gate of Heavenly Peace were filled with people from out of town, the Working People’s Cultural Palace was filled with local Beijingers.

The Bridges leading to the Halberd Gate of Imperial Ancestral Temple. 

Locals were taking photos and playing in the snow. I was surprised how many photographers were out. I tried to cut them out of my photos as much as possible. One young family was engaged in a snowball fight.

Several young women were posing for photos in Imperial era costumes. I don’t know if these were hastily arranged to take advantage of the snow or if they were regularly scheduled shoots. The woman in the photo on the Bottom is balancing on clogs at the center of her feet. 

The Imperial Ancestral Temple houses the Taimiao Art Museum of Imperial Ancestral Temple Beijing, which is one of the sites for Anish Kapoor’s solo exhibition in Beijing. We first saw the show the prior evening. I stepped in to get another look.

Kapoor’s mirrored steel works S-Curve (2006) and C-Curve (2007), Stave (2013), Non-Object (Spire) (2008) and Non-Object (Door) (2008) were on display in the central atrium.

The 600 year old Imperial Ancestral Temple is the probably the best preserved historical site I’ve seen in China. The highly detailed wall and ceiling paint create a more unique experience than the usual white walled gallery spaces, or outdoor settings, when viewing the distortions and reflections of the scultures.

When approaching the C-Curve (above) from the front reflections are inverted until one gets closer to the sculpture, when they shift to right side up. There is no such distortion when approaching from the rear.

The reflections of the S Curve can feel even more disorienting, as the view changes depending on if approaching from the left, (upside down), or the right (rightside up).

Kapoor’s mirrored steel scultures are part funhouse mirror and part portal to another world. The Temple environment adds to this impression.


Back outside, I headed for the back gate, passing more locals taking photos of each other and the Imperial structures in the snow.

These two young women were taking selfies with a snow bunny that had been built, with a crude snow man on a bench facing the moat near the East Glorious Gate of the Forbidden City.

I ended the morning with a quick walk up to the east corner tower. There were about a dozen other people taking photos with smart phones and DSLRs.

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76 Departments of the Afterlife

76 Departments of the Afterlife

Dōngyuè Temple is a 14th century Taoist temple in Beijing’s Central Business District. From the outside this hidden gem looks like most other small temples in China, but passing through its gates takes one on a tour of the Taoist afterlife.

Dōngyuè Temple is one of the largest Taoist temples in northern China. It is dedicated to the God of the Eastern Peak, Mount Tai, the holiest of the Five Sacred Mountains of China.

The main halls and the main gate were completed in1322. The temple was expanded and rebuilt twice during the Qing dynasty.

The memorial archway opposite the temple, across Chaowai Street, seen through the main gate. It was built in 1602. Another gate between the temple and the archway was dismantled in 1988 when Chaowai street was widened.

Guardian deities greet you when entering the main gate, called the Zhandai (or Dragon Tiger) Gate. Ten imperial guards of Mt. Tai sit in a side room on the other side.

Monks walking the raised pathway named “Happiness Road” that extends through the courtyard.

There are two pavilions on both sides of the path, with memorial stele for Emperor Kangxi and Emperor Qianlong of Qing Dynasty.

90 stele with Chinese calligraphy from the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties are distributed between both sides of Happiness Road. Many sit on the backs of stone turtles gods. There were originally 140.

Happiness Road ends at Daiyuedian Hall, also known as Mount Tai Palace. Two little towers which hold what appears to be ash, branch off both sides of the path, just before the hall.

Daiyuedian & Yude Halls

I couldn’t get photos inside Daiyuedian Hall, but got several shots in the back rooms known as the living palace called “Yu De”, or Yude Hall.

The Hall was originally dedicated to the statues of God and Goddess of Mount Tai, but now displays Jinsi Nanmu wooden sculptures of statues of the gods of heaven, earth, and water and other Taoist deities.

Departments of the Afterlife

What distinguishes Dōngyuè Temple from just about every other temple we’ve seen in China, are the cubicles on the east and west sides of the courtyard with plaster sculptures that represent the 76 departments of the afterlife, or hell, under the jurisdiction of the God of Mt. Tai. Some of my favorite departments are featured below.

Department of Accumulating Justifiable Wealth

Department of Halting Destruction of Living Beings
Not sure I would trust this guy with a knife.
Department of Opposing Obscene Acts

Department of Instant Rewards and Retribution

Urging Department

Punishment Department

Department of Earth Gods

Department for Demons and Monsters

Department of Forest Ghosts and Spirits
(The cover image is from the same department.)

Animal Department

Department of the Hell
Depending on what you read, there are 15 Departments of Hell. The actual Department of Hell is much more restrained than some of the others.

Recent History

Dōngyuè Temple was was completely gutted during the Cultural Revolution, with the contents burned or taken away to be destroyed. The temple reopened in late 1970s. All but five of the 50 statutes are replicas. The five older statues are originally from the Beijing Sanguanmiao (Three Officials Temple), which currently serves as government offices. They were moved to Dongyue Temple when the original statues couldn’t be found. The three courtyards and remaining buildings occupy only part of the original site. Dongyue Temple has hosted the Beijing Folk Customs Museum since 1997. The temple was restored in 2002.

Check out China’s memory manipulators, a 2016 article by Ian Johnson for the Guardian, for more background on Dongyue Temple, other cultural sites, and the recreation of Chinese history by the Communist Party. A fascinating read.

Information in the post about Dongyue Temple was referenced from Wikipedia and Travel China Guide.

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An American Expat in China

An American Expat in China

How does a middle aged graphic designer find himself living in Beijing, traveling China, Asia and the World?

Four years ago I was commuting daily to my web and graphic design job at a New York healthcare company in the Bronx. The commute was long and unpredictable, and the company’s recent move to the new corporate headquarters added an additional 15 – 20 minutes each way. While I generally liked the job I was looking for a change.

My iPhone was my only camera at the time. My photos (and videos) covered a range of subjects from daily life in New York City, weird or interesting stuff I came across (clouds, shadows, etc.), trips and the occasional food pic. Most of this ended up on Instagram and Facebook.

I originally got into photography as a visual arts student at Duke Ellington, School of the Arts in my hometown, Washington, DC. As with many photographers of a certain age, my first camera was the Pentax K1000. I learned to shoot black and white photos, learning to develop film and work with prints in the darkroom. I was always into comics and drawing, and eventually moved on to graphic design, but never stopped taking photos, eventually making the move to digital. The first digital camera I used was the Nikon E4500 flip camera that I occasionally borrowed from the job. Since then I have shot with an assortment of point and shoot cameras, the occasional DSLR, and every iPhone I’ve owned since the original, and now shoot photos with the Sony a6400.

My first trip outside of North American was to Japan, to visit the Nichiren Shoshu head temple Taiseki-ji with other members from Los Angeles’ Myohoji Temple for the 750th Anniversary of the Submission of the Rissho Ankoku-ron in 2009. I took a few extra days afterward to explore Tokyo. Before Japan the only country I’d been to outside of the United States was Canada for a day trip.

I traveled to Taiseki-ji two more times (2012, 2014), and Sado Island (2012) with members of New York’s Myosetsuji Temple. I hit Tokyo again, and Nikko and Kamakura in 2014.

In 2014 I went to Europe for the first time, celebrating Christmas with my Partner and her family in Copenhagen, and New Years with friends in the UK. We returned to Copenhagen the following year to ring in 2016.

A couple of weeks into the new year, I was on my way to work, when I get a text from my partner asking how much I liked Chinese food. I called her back and she told me that we were going to China for her job. Nine months later we were living in Beijing.

Beijing is a study in contrasts. The city is more vibrant and modern than I thought it would be, with so much landmark architecture, but it’s also the Communist era buildings and apartment blocks, and the hutongs.

I’ve seen more Teslas, Mercedes, Porsches, and other luxury and exotic cars in Beijing than in New York, Los Angeles and London combined. They share the roads with electric motorcycles that I’ve not seen anywhere else, countless e-bikes, bicycles, and ‘old school’ carts (tricycles) pedaled by foot.

It’s still news in the West when ApplePay or Android Pay are available in new cities. Meanwhile in Beijing (and the rest of China) a billion people are using WeChat and Alipay to pay for everything with their phone. Even street vendors and panhandlers have a QR code to accept cash on their mobile phones. I’ve met expats of all ages who have been here for years. Some have been here decades. I was speaking to a gentleman at one of the charity balls last year who said he had lived here for fifteen years, and how much he loved the frenetic energy and how the city was constantly changing. This vibrancy is not just in Beijing, but in cities all over China, and other countries in Asia. I can definitely see how people come here and want to stay.

Since moving to this side of the world, my partner and I have explored Beijing, China, and several other Asian countries. We have also visited several more countries in Europe, and I have circumnavigated the world at least twice since 2016. Not too bad for a guy whose first trip overseas was a little over ten years ago.

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