“Hutong” is the Chinese word for the cramped, winding alleys that thread between main roads in the heart of the city. “Hutong” is also used to describe the neighborhoods and communities connected to those alleys.
They are, for the most part, confined within the 2nd ring road, and are considered an important part of Beijing’s cultural history. It is often used as an example of the dilemma China has with its rapid development-destroy the old, ugly, and unsafe hutongs in favor of the new, pretty, higher density apartment blocks that can house more affluent citizens.
Some say it is a question of history, culture, and self-determination. Hutongs are part of what people call the “Old Beijing”, are historically and culturally significant, and therefore should be preserved at all costs. Wandering the Hutongs is a great way to relax and see the quiet side of the city. Life is slower here, as I can attest by living in one. Kids running between cars, playing hide and seek in courtyards, their dripping ice cream creating a trail of colors on the pavement. People on short stools and tables, discussing the latest news and gossip over warm beer and bbq.
They are romanticized in books, paintings, and photographs. Tours of them are given by drivers chirping “Hello! Rickshaw!”, and once getting you in, start to race others in a can-you-make-it-without-clipping-another-person-or-car. Issues of self-determination appear, with locals fighting government over who has the right to destroy or preserve, who has the right to remake, and who has to move-or more precisely when to move.
Others say it’s a question of planning, economics, and safety. The alleys were created with bikes in mind as the main form of movement, and therefore the roads at the widest are maybe 8 meters (24 feet) across. Add parked cars and bikes, chairs, tables, plants, bricks, dead appliances, more bikes and the space shrinks. Most Hutongs consist of a single floor, haphazardly cobbled together, with roofs and walls at differing degrees of dilapidation. Because of this, the population density is low compared to other areas of the city.