Beijing’s hutongs have continually evolved (and at worst disappeared) in face of the city’s rapid and unrelenting growth, though this museum, halfway down the eponymous tree-lined alley, documents the ways of hutong living back in the good old days. Exhibits including a mockup family home from the mid-20th century, and a ‘Sounds of the Hutong’ audio experience that allows visitors to immerse themselves in the atmosphere of a bygone era. A celebration of the city’s traditional single-storey dwellings. Thankfully, it hasn’t been bricked up… yet.
Don’t miss The big-ature model of the sprawling hutongs in the days of yore.
Estimated time 45 minutes.
English provisions Decent if not comprehensive translations.
Original review July 2014:
Many of Beijing’s beloved hutongs are still disappearing as a result of the city’s rapid modernisation, but one museum aims to show how life once was – and in some places, still is – in the historic alleyways.
Hidden behind the modern hotels and shops of Wangfujing is Shijia Hutong, a sleepy, tree-lined neighbourhood where some of China’s most famous writers, artists and diplomats once lived. Curious hutong hunters can wander a little further, to courtyard number 24, to find the Shijia Hutong Museum – a beautiful space that commemorates hutong life and traditional architecture.
Launched late last year, the renovated museum – which cost 5.3 million RMB – is a joint project between the local municipal government and the Prince’s Charities Foundation China, a charitable trust owned by Britain’s Prince Charles.
The courtyard property once belonged to Chinese painter and writer Ling Shuhua, the daughter of a former Beijing mayor who apparently had an affair with Virginia Wolf’s nephew, poet Julian Bell, in the 1930s. After Shuhua and her husband left to live in the UK, the property was transformed into a children’s nurser y from 1958 to 2002.
Shijia Hutong’s long history with education stretches back more than 280 years when the area was the site of the ‘Left Wing Bannerman’s School’. Children from each of the ‘Eight Banners’ (administrative divisions under the Qing Dynasty into which all Manchu families were placed) came here to study, as well as learn combat skills such as horse riding and archery. ‘Life in Shijia has changed, but it hasn’t at the same time,’ says museum volunteer Qiao Yue.
The 20-year-old university student, who grew up in Shijia Hutong, also attended primary and middle school where the museum now stands. He has vivid memories of how his neighbourhood was in tatters growing up. ‘When it rained outside, it rained inside, too,’ Yue says, pointing to the courtyard’s tiled roof. Yue clearly still feels attached to the area: ‘From age four to 11, my grandfather would bring me to school on his bicycle. He died in May, so I think I should come here to preserve his memory and memories of my childhood.’
They may be disappearing at an alarming rate, but the hutongs are still the beating heart of Beijing. The tight neighbourhoods continue to foster a close-knit community, enveloped by wispy trees, grannies in jammies, street vendors on rickety bikes and plenty of neighbourly chatter. The museum’s courtyard is full of crab apple trees and chirpy birds in wire cages; an idealised microcosm of hutong life. Inside, the museum has plenty of interactive exhibits. Don’t miss the scale model of Shijia Hutong itself, which is impressive in its detail. The museum also details the hutong’s several other famous residents. Perhaps most interesting is the model of a ‘typical hutong home’ in the ’50s and ’60s, replete with a giant Mao portrait at the centre of the room.
But it’s the beautifully renovated building itself that best pays tribute to the city’s hutongs. The museum’s courtyard offers a slice of calm and quiet in the centre of one of Beijing’s biggest commercial districts.