BEIJING Shuxiean Zuo, also know as Madame Zuo, has lived in the
same home in central Beijing for 45 years. She raised two kids in
her tiny one-bedroom house. She has shared her central courtyard
with the same neighbors for most of those years, and she likes the
sense of community and continuity in her neighborhood. She pays $10
a month in rent.
To say that Madame Zuo has witnessed dramatic changes in the
Chinese capital in the last half a century would be a great
understatement. However, one of the biggest changes to Madame Zuo
personally is yet to come.
Zuo lives in one of Beijing’s hutong districts. For hundreds of
years, these hutong neighborhoods with their distinctive narrow,
winding streets lined with walls that hide small houses with inner
courtyards have been the heart of China’s capital.
Despite their vast cultural and historical importance, in the
next three to four years a significant number of these
neighborhoods will be demolished to make way for modern high-rise
Fortunately for tourists, there is still time to visit the
hutongs, and there are several organized day tours to give clients
firsthand experience of the hutong way of life.
One such tour is organized by Hello Beijing, which offers
walking and pedi-cab tours of the Xuanwu hutong district. Most of
Xuanwu was built during the Liao and Jin dynasties, and some
streets go back 1,000 years. A visit to the area feels like
stepping back in time.
On a recent hosted visit with Hello Beijing, our group whizzed
along in pedi-cabs through the labyrinth of narrow alleyways,
snaking through crowds of pedestrians and bicycles. Each turn
revealed a tableau of daily Chinese life straight out of a
postcard. Everywhere we went the hutong seemed to be humming with
activity. This is the China your clients always imagined.
The emphasis of Hello Beijing’s tours is as much on these daily
routines of the hutong’s residents as on the historical importance
of the neighborhood. As the company’s brochure puts it, this tour
“is the most informative way of getting to know the local culture
After sailing along snapping photos for a while, our tour
stopped at a local market street, where we left the pedi-cabs
behind and strolled through the crowd of shoppers.
There were stands loaded with exotic fruits and vegetables where
locals seemed to linger and gossip. But the main attraction was the
“Longevity Market,” where in a scene that has probably been
repeated here for generations, residents purchased live chickens
and picked out cuts from hanging slabs of bright red meat.
From there, we reboarded the pedi-cabs and stopped next at the
Da An Lan Ying Kindergarten. Here we looked in on classrooms full
of children singing and playing, and even received drawings by some
of the kids. The children seemed as curious about us as we were
Along with these stops, Hello Beijing takes clients to
historically significant sites in the hutong, such as a
500-year-old mosque and a Ming Dynasty temple, and Dazhalan Street,
described in the company’s brochure as the “Fifth Avenue of ancient
As we pedaled through the hutong, several houses we saw were
marked with small blue signs. According to our guides (who were
very knowledgeable and spoke excellent English), these are the
houses that will be left standing when the hutong is demolished in
the next few years as the city prepares for the Olympics in 2008.
Over 4 million people live in Beijing’s hutongs, or roughly a third
of the city’s residents, which makes the destruction of the hutongs
all the more staggering.
It also makes the highlight of the tour a home visit with actual
residents such as Madame Zuo more meaningful, as these residents
are witnesses to an way of life on the brink of extinction.
With graciousness and good humor, Madame Zuo welcomed our group
behind the walls of the alleyway and into her courtyard and home.
Zuo answered questions and told stories of her time in the hutong
with our guide as a translator.
We were all happy to note that Madame Zuo’s home was marked with
a blue sign meaning it will be spared from the bulldozers; however
many of her neighbors will be forced to move.
“The young people like the new high apartment buildings,” Zuo
told us. “But for older people like me, it is considered wrong to
be living so far from the ground. It is better to be like a tree,
and keep your roots near the earth.”