Our cosy rickshaw sits at idle beside a grey curb, whispering for us to step aboard; more words uttered than our rickshaw driver. His blank eyes lead us to his wooden workhorse, his rotund face devoid of any emotion or interest in us.
As we ease into our share-seat we snuggle together while our driver hunches over his handlebars and starts pedalling furiously through tight streets. As the name suggests, The Hutongs (narrow alleys) demand a more subtle approach to transport. No cars fit here; these streets are ruled by simpler modes of getting around – rickshaws, bicycles, walking or the occasional motorised scooter.
As we rummage through a row of snoozing bars and clubs along a calm lake, we’re overcome by a sense of simplicity here. Along fringes of the hustle and bustle of Beijing’s fast-paced lifestyle, lies a sleepy alcove of one-storey siheyuan where chickens roam freely and autumn leaves float through the air like snowflakes. The Hutongs are Beijing’s poorer outskirts which tightly hug Beijing’s city sprawl, determined not to be shaken off by China’s modernised and industrialised ideals and wealth. These skinny houses are knitted together forming a chain of life-long bonds amongst its residents who rely on old-style living arrangements and community for their survival. Our interpreter Angelina explains that there is hierarchy among these seemingly identical homes and it’s not uncommon for basic facilities such as toilets to be shared amongst different families.
We’re led through quiet alleyways where eventually we’re stepping across the threshold of Mrs Fong’s hutong house. A rectangular archway leads us to a secluded courtyard. Vines snake through garden beds, offering zucchini, eggplant and tomatoes. Pigeons gurgle in little cages as a brown chicken nestles soundly in a coup like a ball of fluff. We can tell that Mrs Fong embodies immortality.
Despite her elderly, arbitrary, age and the fact she struggles to reach the height of my shoulder, she possesses a child-like spring in her step, her wiry black hair peppered with grey shoots in every direction from her scalp. With a somewhat concerned face, she leads us through corridors to the inner realm of her daily life. Rather than generous spaces cramped by unnecessary clutter, we find functional rooms detailed by only the essentials – beds, chairs, table, t.v, books and an upright piano. By a streaky window pane, we see palm-sized crickets housed in wooden cages creaking in unison. Through Angelina, Mrs Fong asserts that she is keen to be closer to nature and the constant creaking is music to her ears.
We pack into a guest room around a communal table as Mrs Fong serves us cups of steaming green tea. As she sits amiably, Mrs Fong discusses her life here in The Hutongs and we discover that five generations of her family have called this quaint house home – one of the oldest families living in the area. Mrs Fong is a typical matriarch wanting to keep her family legacy alive and shining in the face of an ever-imposing horizon of monetary corporate China. I ask Mrs Fong about the whereabouts of her immediate family. She says that her children live in the city, toiling to make a wage and provide for her ageing family. This, as Angelina points out, is an ever-increasing pattern in this modern age. A question lingers as to whether The Hutongs still have a future for Beijing’s poor or will the area gradually become redundant. Even in these times of en masse development I’m keen to know if her children will continue to support the family’s foundations here in The Hutongs and return to live. I ask Mrs Fong: “What would happen if your children don’t return. What would happen to your house?” She answers firmly with a closed smile: “My children will return here to live.” I nod politely at her response. I’m then left cradling my half-drunk cup of tea and an uncertainty as to whether my question became lost in translation, or whether my bold nosiness is too unfathomable for Mrs Fong to contemplate.
A shorter version of this story has also been entered into the World Nomads Travel Writing Scholarship 2012.