With the 2008 Olympics commencing in less than a year, Beijing is working overtime in a major urban overhaul and regrettably, this has also prompted the accelerated destruction of its lovely hutongs. These ancient alleys that snake through Beijing are being demolished to make way for chic and upscale development projects in spite of mounting protests.
Shift was in Beijing earlier this month and so we give you the lowdown on one lucky hutong, Nanluogu Xiang that has escaped its fate since it is among one of the oldest hutongs around and has been marked for cultural heritage preservation.
Nine-thirty (No. 91 Nanluogu Xiang) promises a Hong Kong movie every night at 9.30pm. So says the sign on the window of this cafe. Not sure if this really happens though, if it doesn't, walk a little further down to a Xinjiang restaurant (No. 113-3 Nanluogu Xiang) and get yourself some delicious lamb kebabs washed down with a few bottles of Yanjing beer just like the locals do.
Maybe with the prestigious Central Academy of Drama in its vicinity, this nearly 800-year-old hutong has acquired quite an artsy and creative feel with plenty of bars, cafes and small stores selling trinkets, handicraft and clothing.
Be sure not to miss Plastered (No. 61 Nanluogu Xiang), a quirky t-shirt store by British designer Dominic Johnson-Hill that brands itself as "Beijing's original T-shirt brand". We like the China-themed designs with a tongue-in-cheek twist, particularly the one on street side barber shops (usually a cover for sleazy masseurs) but the sizes don't seem to fit too well on us so no t-shirts in the end.
If pottery is more your kind of thing, drop by The Pottery Workshop (No. 23 Nanluogu Xiang) to check out its range of China-themed porcelain-ware. Also don't forget to visit the newly-opened Grifted (No. 32 Nanluogu Xiang) which supports community-based tourism – watch out for the candy wrapper bracelets and necklaces handmade by Beijing locals, definitely one-of-a-kind souvenirs!
Somewhere in between the two stores sits Saveurs de Corée (No. 29 Nanluogu Xiang), a Korean bistro which might have gone unnoticed if not for its minimalist unfinished wooden exterior. On our last day in Beijing, we dined al fresco on the rooftop terrace, a pleasant lunch comprising of Korean cold noodles and a glass of iced coffee.
More than just shops and cafes, Nanluogu Xiang also boasts of some faded communist slogans on its aged grey walls. If you are not observant enough, you just might blink and miss them.
Traditionally, houses in the hutongs do not come equipped with sanitary facilities such as toilets or bathrooms. Not surprisingly, Nanluogu Xiang is lined with numerous public toilets for the convenience of its residents although it is not uncommon to witness residents with chamberpots in hand.
The next time you are in Beijing, be sure to head down to Nanluogu Xiang for a dose of Chinese history, arts and culture. You may even choose to stay in the hutong just as we did. Down Town Backpackers Accommodation (No. 85 Nanluogu Xiang) would be a good option with clean rooms, friendly staff and reasonable prices… and the best thing, Nanluogu Xiang on your doorstep.
Nanluogu Xiang is situated in Beijing's Dong Cheng District and is near the Drum Tower. Walk East along Guloudong Dajie about 10-15min past the Drum Tower and look out for the street sign pointing the way to the hutong on your right-hand side.
Text and photos: Wee Ling Soh