As the symbol of Beijing city, hutong is a lane or small street in China's capital that originated during the Yuan Dynasty. It is said that the real culture of Beijing is "the culture of hutong" and "the culture of courtyards".
Often, it is Beijing's winding hutongs rather than the high-rise buildings that attract tourists from home and abroad. Today, our reporter Wu Jia will take us to Nan Luo Gu Xiang, one of the oldest hutongs in Beijing.
If you want to wander through long and puzzling hutong, smile to the lovely local neighbors and hear the whistle of doves as they soar over the roofs of courtyards, Nan Luo Gu Xiang is a place to be. It offers up a glimpse of what hutong life in Beijing is really like.
Located several north of the Forbidden City and just east of Houhai Lake, the 800-meter Nan Luo Gu Xiang has a history of over 700 years dating back to the Yuan Dynasty in the 13th and 14th centuries. It is a neighborhood which has traditionally housed merchants, the wealthy and the powerful, and it's well on its way to reclaiming that heritage today.
The narrow street is now famous for the cafes, bars, clothing and craft shops that line its hutong laneways, as well as its traditional courtyards. Nan Luo Gu Xiang is a perfect blend of past and present. Hong Yan is a Hong Kong tourist, browsing in a design shop.
"I think this is a very trendy place. I've visited other hutongs in Beijing, but after renovation, they look new, I can't get the feeling of the old days. But it is quite different here."
The area received a facelift in early 2006 - the hutong road was paved with grey bricks, storefronts were renovated, and cafes and shops were opened.
Xiao bian opened the 1st bar ĘC Passby Bar ĘC in this Hutong in 1999 and has been observing the changes in this neighborhood ever since. While he's not against upgrading, Xiao bian prefers change to be slow.
"It's all happened very fast. Every year I go for a long bike trip to Tibet. Last year, I went on my bike trip from August to September. I came back a month and a half later and they had opened ten bars in a month. And there were others under construction, preparing to open. In 2004 and 2005, it really all developed very quickly. I wish that they would give us more time, the longer the better. It will give us more time to reflect upon what these changes mean to us."
The fast pace of city life can sometimes make us feel as though real life is getting away from us, while the essence of hutong life is its slow pace. Ed, a Canadian Chinese whose home is not far from here, opened NLGX Design & Cafe. He normally spends his spare time at his own cafe, sipping coffee while surfing on the Internet. He says walking into Nan Luo Gu Xiang, the tranquil atmosphere inside the lane will make one forget about the hustle and bustle of modern life. People naturally slow down their walking pace and feel relaxed.
"There's no hurry in Nan Luo Gu Xiang, no matter whether they are walking or riding bicycles. Strolling through shops here is very comfortable. It's no big deal even if you get lost. Almost every hutong has its own story to tell, it takes time to find those interesting things."
Amidst the destruction of many old Beijing historical neighborhoods in recent years, Nan Luo Gu Xiang was spared and designated by the Beijing government as a historical site for preservation and a showcase for Chinese culture.
The renovation breathes new life into the old hutongs. The problem of how to balance city construction and hutong preservation is also the concern of many shop owners on Nan Luo Gu Xiang. In Ed's shop, he sells T-shirts designed by him and his partners. Each one bears two Chinese characters, which mean 'no destruction'. Ed and his partners try to convey their ideas about the preservation of hutongs and raise public awareness by selling these T-shirts.
"Without these hutongs, Beijing risks losing its characteristic cityscape. It will become an ordinary city no different from all the others. We want to let people know that there is still something they can do to help protect hutongs."
The government recognises that the extinction of the Beijing hutong is undesirable, and has begun to develop more preservation concepts. If the government's preservation efforts succeed, they will bring huge cultural and social benefits.
Xiao Bian doubts the renovation can revive the original feeling of hutong life. However, he remains generally positive about it.
"The road is much smoother than it was and it looks nicer too. I think the renovation is beneficial for the local residents and good for shops because after they renovated the hutong, more people learned about it. This attracts more people. However, it looked more natural in the past, now there is something a little artificial about it, like they tried a little too hard to create a certain atmosphere. "
Efforts to turn Nan Luo Gu Xiang into a cultural and sightseeing spot will entail more renovations. The huge commercial and promotional value associated with hutongs may risk ruining the atmosphere of old Beijing, but one can not deny that it's better to encourage people to learn about hutong culture, as showcased by Nan Luo Gu Xiang.
With China becoming more and more open to the outside world, growing numbers of visitors from different countries and regions want to learn about its culture. By learning about hutong culture, the world can gain a deeper understanding of Beijing and its people. Protecting hutongs may indeed be seen as protecting the culture of Beijing.