On 1 June, Rain Xiao looked in horror as the ominous threat to her business materialised over night in the form of a pile of bricks. Within days, workers had bricked up her bar Cellar Door and other lively haunts along Fangjia Hutong – an alleyway popular with cosmopolitan Beijing denizens.
“I came to Beijing in 2009 and began working in cafés and bars,” she explains. “I learned how to make cocktails and coffees. I knew all the customers.”
The ease with which English-fluent Xiao developed a rapport with expats prompted her to open her own business. In 2011 she rented a hole-in-the-wall hutong abode and set-up shop.
“I slept in the bar for 18 months. I put socks on my hands to keep warm,” she says of her initial years in business.
Rain Xiao looks out of her shop window. Image: Thomas Bird/author provided.
Xiao’s assiduousness paid off. Cellar Door cultivated a reputation as a laidback watering hole for those seeking craft beer enjoyed to an alt-rock soundtrack, the antitheist of tawdry karaoke parlours or seedy expat dives elsewhere. Xiao met English teacher Nicholas Kingston-Smith in Cellar Door and they were married in 2014.
“I have a business licence but it’s more than that,” she says fighting off the tears. “It’s my home.”
It was Autumn 2016 when a curious phenomenon prompted Beijingers to start sharing photos of bricks appearing in the capital’s labyrinthine inner city. These bricks were soon cemented into the doors and windows of small business, from noodles joints to fruit vendors.
The threat had loomed for nearly a decade when the government made the eradication of improvised buildings an urban priority back in 2008. But business carried on undaunted in the city’s uniquely vibrant old quarters.
Beijing has been the capital of China for much of the last nine hundred years. It was during the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) that the Mongol word hutong was first coined to refer to the narrow streets and alleyways common in the cities of northern China. By the Qing dynasty (1644 to 1912) Beijing was a walled citadel, where, as Chinese historian Jeremiah Jenne explains, “the hutong courtyards served as official residents for the banner men of the Qing court.”
A Hutong. Image: Thomas Bird/author provided.
After the collapse of imperial China, this remarkably well-preserved medieval city would enter a century of unprecedented change. Its city walls were felled during the Nationalist-era, but it was after the Communist revolution of 1949 when it began to radically alter.
During the Beijing City Planning Conference of 1949 two foreign-educated architects, Liang Sicheng and Chen Zhanxiang, offered a vision for Beijing whereby the historic city would be conserved, while essential functions like administration would be moved to satellite towns. Their ideas were ignored as city planners adopted a soviet model and rushed to build a modern city.
Demolition and expansion only accelerated after the 1980s when China’s booming economy fuelled exponential expansion. Today Beijing has become a metropolis of over 20m souls. It now confronts the issues foreseen by Liang and Chen of an overcrowded urban centre with associated woes, most notably air pollution.
Throughout the tumultuous period Beijing has seen waves of migration from the provinces, particularly during the 1990s when migrant workers came to construct new high-rise towers. With the relaxation of the hukou – household registration laws – many rented hutong dwellings and established small businesses.
But as government has attempted to cap urban population at 23m, the grey area those businesses persisted in ever since has turned decidedly black. According to Reuters, “Under a three-year plan to clean up 1,674 hutongs, the municipal government is targeting illegal construction. That’s more than two-thirds of all existing hutongs...”
Human rights issues have been raised as shopkeepers complain they’re not even given time to close-up before the bricks arrive outside their doors. Charges of harassment abound. James Palmer, author of The Death of Mao argues that, “a sensible city policy would have been to enable small business owners to pave a path to legitimacy”. He adds that, if congestion is the issue “why not make hutongs car-free?”
The abiding lack of transparency is prompting much conjecture amongst China watchers. “I don’t think there’s a plan, there’s many competing visions,” says Jenne. “The Public Security bureau will want less people, the Tourist Bureau will want to bolster numbers.”
Some imagine that the hutongs are poised to be redeveloped for tourism in the guise of Nanluo Guxiang – a tawdry tourist strip that attracts droves of sightseers to experience a simulacra of hutong life. Others imagine a return to Qing China: courtyard houses occupied by well-to-do families, devoid of the street life that made exploring them so much fun.
Some businesses have survived the brick-up, either through relocation or sheer stoicism. Rain Xiao has rebranded Cellar Door as Cellar Window and now serves loyal customers through a window.
The Cellar Door today. Image: Thomas Bird/author provided.
But what concerns many is the cultural vibrancy of the city. The hutongs germinated the seeds of contrarianism that makes the capital so fascinating. It was on the back alleys that rock music flowered. The artist community has already expressed anguish through various exhibitions and performances under the umbrella, “Celebrating Hutong Resilience”.
Yet for those who’ve defined their Beijing experience in the hutong bars and dumpling shops, or indeed, the migrants who run these enterprises, the writing might be on the bricked-up wall. As one Fangjia barfly put it, “just think how much this city changed before 2008,” noting the looming 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.
Nobody knows the endgame. The old heart of Beijing has endured rapacious change over the last century but in the shadow the imperial Drum Tower it now beats with an uncertain, uneven metre.
Thomas Bird is an East Asia-based writer. He has contributed to several guidebooks including Rough Guides China.