Hutong Highs


“What does this hat say?”
“Double Happiness.”
“Woah, that’s a lotta happiness.”
“Yes. And so ugly.”

This afternoon, I put on my finest trilby and joined my girlfriend for a wander around some of the Beijing hutongs*, starting with the usually gorgeous (and damned near unpronounceable) Nanlouguxiang. I add the word ‘usually’ because Nanluoguxiang is currently a building site. The entire hutong is under some kind of mad renovation, with centuries old architecture and hip boutique shops temporarily obscured by huge blue fences and fuck ugly grey scaffolding. Workmen with heavy Army surplus jackets and weather-beaten faces sit idly smoking cigarettes while tourists lament the closure of yet another gentrified retail space.

Some of the shops remain open, but we didn’t really linger. I was there just long enough to receive strict instructions from gf that I was not, under any circumstances, to buy a beanie hat with ‘BEIJING’ emblazoned across the front of it (“It is so last century! You will look like my mother!”)** The sales lady tried her best to sell me some Tiananmen Square socks instead, before accepting that I was being dragged out of the shop.

We strolled along Wudaoying hutong, always a favourite of Westerners for its bars, bicycle shops and vegan food joints. We passed through Yonghegong, a stone’s throw from the monks of Lama Temple and the tourists of the Temple of Confucius. We dined on tofu and pork in nearby Bexinqiao.

We then took the subway to one of the strangest, most out-of-the-way concrete monstrosities of a shopping mall that I’ve ever laid eyes on. There was a cinema inside showing Tim Burton’s latest movie (which probably made it to China because Terrence Stamp gives the main character some RMB at one point).

What an enjoyable time, even if the sky has been as grey as an old man’s ball bag all day.

I can’t wait to see the look on that girl’s face when she sees me in my BEIJING beanie!

* The hutongs are a network of narrow alleyways snaking through Beijing and other Northern Chinese cities. The dwellings range from the snug & comfortable to the tragically impoverished. Nothing better sums up the Chinese clash of super-modern and almost-medieval.

** Yes, gf is a bit of a hipster.