The Last Hutongs Of Beijing And China's Urban Change

A. J. Samuels

Beijing’s rapid transformation into a global metropolis is astonishing. However, the efficient urban reconstruction comes at a cost to the city’s historical heritage. Thus the unique character of Old Beijing (老北京) as it is known, is razed into piles of rubble. WildChina talks with journalist and photographer Jojje Olsson about the particular struggles to preserve Beijing’s heritage.


Image Courtesy of WildChina

In 2007, Jojje Olsson came to China. He’d just won a university competition, and his prize covered the flight. He planned to study Chinese in Beijing for one semester but he ended up staying for good. It was a coincidence, he says, and it was another coincidence that led him to the path he walks now. While looking for housing in 2010, he visited almost 30 potential residences around Beijing before finding an apartment in Langjia hutong. Before he hadn’t known much about hutongs (胡同), Beijing’s traditional living quarters that date back to the 13th century, comprised of narrow grey-bricked alleyways, slanting tile roofs, and square siheyuan courtyards, but after moving in, he became fascinated. ‘It has really, really cool surroundings, nice neighbors, nice environment… people living life in the street.

Image Courtesy of WildChina
Image Courtesy of WildChina

Many take advantage of this fact, razing the hutongs to build towering residential complexes and expensive restaurants. Those who are forced out are compensated very little, not nearly enough to find housing within the city. Instead, families who have lived together for generations are scattered, typically outside the fifth or sixth ring roads, or out of Beijing altogether.
China’s tourism boom in recent years has also impacted the hutongs. Before the 2008 Olympics, the city accelerated the destruction of hutongs to make room for the necessary sports venues and other infrastructure. Even today, there are plans to tear down the hutongs around the Drum Tower to make a large square capable of accommodating a larger tourist flow. Some of the hutongs being demolished are considered protected areas, yet the violation fines are low and regulations are not strictly enforced. Even the hutongs that survive lose their character. Turned into tourist attractions, like Nanluoguxiang (南锣鼓巷), the structures are preserved, but authenticity is not.

Beijing hutong, now a trendy café

This is yet another complication. Most hutongs lack modern amenities such as central heating, fast internet, and toilets. Truly authentic hutongs are not ideal living spaces by today’s standards. Jojje knows Beijing residents who consider the alleyways ‘slums’ not worth protecting, and though surveys show that a significant majority of hutong residents wish to continue living there, most of the youth would rather move elsewhere. They don’t have the emotional attachments that the elderly do, the last generation who truly knows what it was like before.

Image Courtesy of WildChina

After all, the hutongs are so much more than buildings. They’re communities, and they represent a community-based lifestyle that has existed for centuries. ‘It’s more about the social fabric‘, Jojje emphasizes again and again, ‘Neighbors who know each other, playing mah-jongg on the streets. It’s about the people and it’s about the atmosphere.’ And yet, once the buildings are destroyed, that culture, the atmosphere, and the people disappear as well, scattered to the far reaches of the city.

Jojje and Hou know that there is no simple solution to this conundrum, but they do have a plan. They want to extensively document the remaining hutongs, selecting eight to focus on, in photos and interviews, in a book, along with maps, histories, and other facts, to remedy the lack of information. They call their project ‘The last hutongs of Beijing‘. They will also create a website about the hutongs, including updates on each street’s demolition/reconstruction status. They’re being destroyed so rapidly that it’s hard to keep track.
That’s the goal, in the end, ‘to try to get people… not necessarily engaged in protecting the hutongs’, efforts to do so are scarce, and perhaps that’s too much to ask for, ‘but enlightened.’ Awareness is the first step, and hopefully, a dialogue will follow. Jojje recalls a relatable situation from his homeland, Sweden. Many of the city’s old quarters were razed in the 1950s during an extensive urban renewal project. ‘Back then, no one saw the value in protecting the old buildings, but then in the 80s and 90s, people were having big regrets, like why did we destroy our city? So I think it would be good if Beijing could learn a lesson from that.
Watch ‘The last hutongs of Beijing’ clip:
By WildChina

About WildChina:

WildChina is a premium, sustainable travel company based in Beijing. Started in 2000 by Mei Zhang, a native of Yunnan Province and a Harvard MBA, WildChina offers distinctive, ecologically sensitive journeys to all corners of China. WildChina creates bespoke trips highlighted by rich personal interactions and superior access to experts and venues. We cater to an exclusive and sophisticated clientele interested in exploring the real China off the beaten path.

At WildChina, adventure and luxury are synonymous, meaning that we bring comfort to a truly distinctive experience. We plan every trip with the knowledge that our guests expect the highest quality of service and pride us on our meticulous attention to detail. Whether interested in seeing an untouched landscape or exploring an iconic site in a unique way, WildChina’s journeys will undoubtedly allow you to Experience China Differently!’

landscape with balloons floating in the air


Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world

Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.

Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.

Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.

Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.

We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.

Winter Sale Offers on Our Trips

Incredible Savings

Edit article