Monday, April 02, 2007

Impressions from China - Old Beijing Hutongs

Riding through the narrow & uneven streets of old Beijing in a pedicab (or a trishaw), we were given a taste of life in the olden days, when extended families lived in the old courtyard style houses (siheyuan 四合院). Hutongs (胡同) refer to the streets that line these houses. “24 steps” was the width of the “main” streets, 12 steps for smaller streets & 6 steps for hutongs.

A typical hutong

Many of these homes have been demolished to make way for spanking new buildings to accommodate the fast growing population of Beijing. Fortunately, the Beijing government has designated certain areas to be preserved & protected from demolition. These occupants of these homes pay very low rentals (the one we visited pays only 85 yuan a month for living in a space consisting of a living room, bedroom, kitchen & bathroom). Drawback of living in these homes: no toilets! They share a communal toilet outside the home, or use a chamberpot. Ironically, most of these homes have Internet access, & both homes we visited had PC’s in their houses!

Depending on how prosperous the family was in the past, sizes of the homes differed. However, the basic layout of each home is pretty much the same. Entrance to the house is located at the SE corner (the good feng shui to allow luck in). No windows look out into the streets to ensure privacy & quiet. Each sub-building within the courtyard home has windows opening on to the courtyard which is the center of activity. Occupation each of these buildings is hierarchial, with the senior members of the family usually occupying the northernmost building, followed by the eastern building then western. The servants occupy the southernmost part of the home, & the toilets are placed in the SW part (worst feng shui).

Courtyard home, converted into daycare centre

A prosperous family may have more than one courtyard in their home. The first courtyard (closest to the entrance) is used as a “foyer”, a place where visitors wait while the servants announce their arrival to their masters. The second & even third courtyards are common areas for the family to entertain guests or to enjoy the fresh air (when Beijing used to have fresh air!). Wisteria vines crept on lattices built over the courtyards, fish were also commonplace pets, and apparently, it used to be a common past time to sit in the moonlight under the wisteria vines, enjoying the night air over a cup of tea. The rich folks would occasionally even invite an opera troupe to their homes for a private performance.

Aaahh…the simple life.

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