Throughout much of my doctoral field research in Beijing, I have been staying in an old Chinese courtyard (siheyuan’r) that a few old friends of mine share. Such courtyards were originally familial compounds, which were highly ordered (e.g., in their construction, lay out, etc.), and ordering, both within (e.g., gender, birth order, etc.) and outside (e.g., professional rank, economic status, etc.). Today these courtyards can house several families, who all share the open spaces to dry clothes, eat food, park bicycles, and of course, gossip.
Surrounding these courtyards, are hutong, “narrow alleys” that jig-jag into complicated networks of mazes, bounded by wider traffic arteries. In English, the word ‘hutong’ has been co-opted by expats and savvy backpackers not only as a synonym for an alley (as is meant by the term in Chinese), but the areas that are defined by such alleys and courtyards.
When I first visited Beijing in 1999, the hutongs were the hip place to be, populated by local artists and expats who flocked to small cafes, bars, and galleries. Part of the caché surrounding the hutongs was their imminent destruction, as many of these areas were slated to be demolished to make way for modern buildings and more efficient thoroughfares, making their habitation, even as just a patron, an act of defiance. Zhang Yang’s Shower (1999) is a powerful depiction of the unique relations sustained by the hutongs, and the wider critique of what their destruction signified of China’s rapid development.
The commercial reinvention of the hutong over the past ten years or so was particularly driven by foreigners looking for an ‘authentic Chinese experience’ and a more outwardly conscious, affluent, and alternative (but perhaps not all three) Chinese youth.
Exhibit A: Plastered 8 clothing store on nanlu guxiang (or NLGX as it is referred to by those in the know).
Founded in 2006 when NLGX was still unpaved, the British owner consciously fashioned it as an archive of disappearing Beijing, making abundant use of iconic symbols (e.g., subway tickets, rice wine logos, thermoses) as well as revolutionary themes and slogans. Customers are attended to by local middle-aged women, in direct opposition to those retail spaces that employed alluring doe-eyed ladies. Commercial success followed, as did entrepreneurial copy-cats.
As I walked through NLGX to my office space this morning, I passed Plastered 8, once isolated on a dirt road, now lost amongst a slew of design stores, food stands, bars, hostels, and other small retail shops. On weekends, this narrow street is almost impassably filled with people. It appears that the commercial resistance of yesteryear has turned into a new mode de vie in the hutongs that will ensure their protection for some time to come. Or more precisely, while hutongs continue to be demolished, many are rebuilt to include modern amenities, from the basic (e.g., sanitation, electricity) to the high-tech (e.g., wireless, solar panels).
It’s not always easy being a graduate student researcher in China (or Montreal, for that matter). Nor is it always comfortable living in a courtyard. But when I open my laptop to start my day’ work and look out at the tiled roofs that surround me, I feel pretty grateful for my grad life.