Die Hutongs von Peking

Hutong Islands

The most beautyful part of Beijing

I remember, when I moved to Beijing in April 2019. The arrival was not easy but the Hutongs in Beijing were my salvation. The following gives a little impression of my first days in the capital of China:

Beijing Arrival

Beijing. A big city jungle. Crowds, skyscrapers, sheet metal avalanches and lots of noise. So much noise. It stinks of smog. I feel like an ant, trying desperately on its way home to not be crushed by the rolling mass. The problem is – I do not have a home!

Sheet metal avalanches in Beijing

When I accepted the job offer in Beijing, I knew there would be an avalanche coming up with this city. And that’s where it rolls over, even though I’ve just arrived.

Already with the first 15 apartments, which I “record-visit” directly on the first day of my arrival, the reality hits me brutally in the face. What I can get upwards for the price of 1000 Euro per month turns my stomach around. One bedroom Apartments, that are embedded in monstrous residential complexes like the honeycombs of a beehive.

On the third day leaves me the courage. Everything looks like I’m going to have to live in one of the honeycombs. I feel depressed. 

skyscrapers in Beijing

I still have an appointment in the evening, so I continue to fight my way through the squeaking crowd until finally, with an hour delay and the last strength, I reach my goal:

The Hutongs of Beijing

Hutong in Beijing

The Hutongs in Beijing are the old quarters, as they are known from the classic Kung Fu movies. They are made up of tiny little houses that were built around the forbidden city in the heart of the capital in the traditional 15th century chinese traditional style. With their mysterious alleys and their imperial charm, they still emit a magical atmosphere whose magic nobody can escape. They are an important part of Chinese history, culture and society.

Hutongs in Beijing
Portrait of a chinese old woman in my neighbourhood. She`s been living in the Hutongs her whole life.

The social network is very closely involved here. Neighbors are not only neighbors, but also friends and family. Social life mostly takes place outside. Especially old people are deeply rooted in the Hutongs. Most of them live here almost all their lives. Like many other residents, they too are largely part of the social underclass. Own sanitary facilities have the least, so almost everyone uses the public toilets. Nevertheless, most of them radiate deep inner contentment.

Neighbourhood in the Hutongs of Beijing
Sitting together with friends and family and of course, their beloved dogs, belongs to the daily routine.

With the rapid economic growth of the 80s, The Hutongs in Beijing and their inhabitants met a fate, that made them the harbinger of the the death of the old and the rebirth of the new China, the Hutongs disappeared.

Why did the Hutongs disappear?

The population rose. New living space had to come and that as fast as possible. The Hutongs in Beijing were demolished and replaced by gigantic skyscraper complexes. People had to leave their home. Whether they wanted it or not. Many did not spare the suffering of forced relocation. With 25 million people who need to live somewhere, there is no room for emotion.

Saving the Hutongs in Beijing

Good Real Estate Investment

Foreigners pay a high price

Meanwhile, the country comes back from the rush of rapid growth and recognizes again the value of the old. Thus, there is a tendency to preserve and even rebuild the last Hutongs in Beijing. Among other things, this may be, because they are very popular with foreigners, not only because of their original character, but also because of the peace they offer. A new branch in the real estate industry has emerged. Foreigners pay a high price so they can feel at home, far away from home.

pink flowers in china
The people here love gardening.
And here I come back into the game!

So I stand exhausted in front of an old wooden gate, whose red paint is already peeling off. I can look into the backyard. There is an old tree, that smells  good. A butterfly flies by. I hear birds chirp and close my eyes. A light wind sweeps over my face. Some of the people who pass me smile at me and say “Ni Hao” in a friendly way. For the first time since I’m back in China, I feel like the knot in my chest is loosening. And I know immediately – I’m home and I take the apartment with the old tree in the backyard.

The backyard of my House in the Hutongs of Beijing 2019.
The backyard of my House in the Hutongs of Beijing 2019. Unfortunately they`ve cut the tree in december 2020. I am still shocked about it.

The importance of the Hutongs in Beijing

I want to show with my work how important the preservation of Hutongs is for their inhabitants. The Hutongs, which are like little islands in the midst of a stormy sea of ​​monstrous skyscrapers, noise, crowds and sheet metal avalanches, provide peace and robust beauty with protection from Beijing’s hectic world outside. They are much more than just a series of stone buildings. They have a soul. Their disappearance would be a bitter loss to Chinese culture and society and would plunge many into a deep calamity, whether poor or rich, old or young, Chinese or foreigners, human or animal. With their disappearance they would all lose something very important:

– Their home –

Please note the following: all images on this website are mine and are subject to copyright. Image theft is a criminal offense and can be very expensive.

©Tanja Herko, photographer in China.

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