Finding Stories Behind the Doors of Beijing’s Hutongs

IMG_4004

No matter where I travel, between the nooks and crannies of local culture I always find an expat community—either thriving, starving, or simply lost. While one might argue that I’m an expat hanging in the world, a more descriptive moniker might be a traveler, explorer, or even a nomad.

I’d define an expat (short for expatriate) as someone living or working in a single place outside their native country for at least six months—though perhaps time is less of a qualification than would be some calculation that combines mindset and immersion.

Usually, I prefer to travel alone. As a solo traveler with a very open and outward personality, I am more approachable than if I were traveling with others. I’m also more likely to approach others and learn more of the local language. While one can find comfort in familiarity, I find it challenging, exciting and rewarding to learn and adapt how to be comfortable away from familiarity. So I focus on the locals and resist getting sucked into the all-too-easy trap of familiarity.

Playing Mahjong in Beijing

Sitting in on a game of Mahjong and amusing the locals inside a small liquor and cigarette shop.

I find, however often, within those expat communities the opposite. I imagine that most who choose to embark on an expat adventure, do so with excitement and intent to integrate, live as locals, and immerse in the culture. Then something happens. I’m not sure if it’s frustration, boredom, or some seeping dose of homesickness, but at some point the novelty and excitement wears off for these expats. Soon they seek refuge and comfort in familiarity and they begin to cluster and build not only their own communities, but in some ways, walls around themselves distancing themselves from the surrounding culture.

As part of my journey through China, I thought it would be interesting to tap into what appears to be a thriving expat culture. I sought to not only learn how to wade through my Chinese challenges, but also as a conduit to Chinese culture and connections. With limited time in China, and without the luxury of a “fixer” I thought expats might help me find unique stories, meet local craftsman, artisans and business people.

British telephone booth in Ningbo China

A gentrified and cobblestoned development in Ningbo that seems to be frequented and populated by expats.

So I set on my journey. First in Ningbo, then Shanghai, and Beijing. I learned, however, that the strong connection among the local expats could possibly creating a disconnection with locals—culture and community. Often, if expats cannot find those comforts of home, they find a way to bring them into their community.

In Ningbo, a small development I found seemed void of anything Chinese: merchant and restaurants signs were all in English as were all the menus  customers and the language. There was even a classic red British phone booth marking the entrance of this development.

In Beijing, while wandering the infamous Gulou hutong area I met a British musician in his mid-30’s teaches English during the day and plays trombone for an R&B band at night. Daniel explained that the opportunities he finds in China would be unavailable to him in England.

Daniel and a group of expat musicians jam while I try to sit in on percussion!

Daniel and a group of expat musicians jam while I try to sit in on percussion!

“We just finished recording music for a Mini television commercial,” he explained with excitement. Eager to share with me connections he’s made during the six months or so he’s been living in China, he was at a loss when I asked about meeting a local musician, chef, or artist.

“I don’t really know any local Chinese musicians,” he said, but was able to bring me deep into the Beijing expat community, which some say numbers more than 20,000—people from all over the world.

IMG_4864

Daniel from the United Kingdom, finds opportunities in China not available to him in the UK.

With an endearing and snappy English accent and the enthusiasm of a young child at his first day of school, Daniel paraded me around expat-filled hutongs of Beijing where I met Max and Micku, a New Jersey couple who met here in China and have opened a burgeoning meatball restaurant, The Meatball Company: Eat Our Balls borrowing a page from a famous New York eatery. Neither speak much Chinese, but a burgeoning delivery business is attracting local customers in addition to expats hungry who want to eat balls—even some with a bit of Latin flavor—meatballs with chimmichurri—yes, in China!

Next, I met Wilson Halley, a 20-something Texan who has lived in Beijing for several years, married a passionate local Chinese coffee connoisseur, Emilie Xu, and recently opened a pie shop that serves high-end artisanal coffee along side Wilson’s homemade American-inspired pies. Got a hankering for apple or pumpkin pie while in Beijing, get over to Rager Pie and try the cold-brewed coffee drawn from a tap.

Daniel, motorcyclist and restauranteur shares a bit of inner Beijing

From Duluth, Jimi has found comfort and opportunity amongst both the local Chinese music and food scene and the expat community.

Our parade marched through the hutong in search of Jimi, an expat and fellow motorcyclist from Duluth, Minnesota who may have come to China with the love of a woman, while that relationship soured quickly, he quickly found another true love—China, and hasn’t found a reason to return to Duluth in several years.

Unlike many of the other expats I meet, Jimi is a bit of a chameleon, adapting himself to not only different pockets of the expat community, but to the local Chinese music scene—particularly Chinese punk, as well. A few years ago, starving for a taste of Minnesota and home, he opened tiny grilled cheese stand, “The Corner Meltl” tucked down a hutong alleyway.

The curiosity of grilled cheese sandwiches captured the attention of Lei Jun, the frontman of Misandao, a legendary Chinese-punk band and founder of the Beijing Punk Festival. Amazingly, the two connected and developed a strong bonding over grilled cheese sandwiches. Together they planned to open a new restaurant.

You see, Lei Jun along with his wife MaYue once operated a local eatery, Noodle, a short lived venture.  Jimi and Lei Jun collaborated on a new venture.

Sadly, earlier this year Misandao broke up, and more devastating, Lei Jun died of a heart attack in May. The news shocked the local music community. But just as I left Beijing Jimi and MaYue were still going ahead with the new venture:  a restaurant in homage to the local punk music scene and, ironically, now for one of its iconic leaders, Lei Jun.

We set amidst the sawdust and architectural plans for the new venture, “Punk Rock Noodle.” Our conversation, I’m hopeful, will be part of the new travel documentary series I was filming while traveling through China by motorcycle.

IMG_0011The hutongs of Beijing date back hundreds of years, though during the last 30 or so, in the rush of development, economic prosperity and the opening of China to the world, the ancient courtyard living quarters that make up a massive maze that winds through the city have been leveled. Massive buildings have taken its place in some areas, while in others more modern housing with the modern conveniences hare popped up.

Proudly displaying his collection of cultural revolution era propaganda

One of the legends of the Beijing-style noodle services up freshly made noodles in a cramped space in a Beijing hutong, and proudly displays a collection of cultural-revolution-era propaganda.

 

IMG_4003

I wandered into a small hutong courtyard and met this young family just as they were preparing dinner. They showed me their modest homestead and offered cool water and conversation

Bulldozing and raising the Beijing Hutong

Many are trying to stop the bulldozing of historical hutong districts in Beijing; it’s controversial and both sides have good arguments.

Still in other areas there is an ongoing gentrification that appears to be in the guise of preserving, and in some cases restoring some of the hutong, especially in the inner ring of Beijing. Prices rise, commerce rings loud, and the tourists, Chinese and the world crowd the alleys. Some of the elderly residents who’ve watch the change over the years are disgusted, while others feel with the change comes economic opportunity. In China, some divulge to me, it’s true: with more money, the people can be more happy.

Jimi and I bantered over China and change. He then connected me with an elderly local, a passionate Chinese opera singer who once spent some ten years working in one of Chairman Mao’s “work-camps”, apparently for speaking out against the regime. He thought, perhaps, it would be interesting to chat with someone who lives in the futon, has lived through the revolution and the cultural revolution.

IMG_0082

 

At 92 years old, his energy and passion seemed more alive than much younger other people, I’ve met on this journey. He adorns his hat collection with a random and esoteric collection of bling. During our conversation, his daughter and granddaughter, who provided me with translation, kept him tight-lipped while we sat in a small coffee and cupcake shop just doors down from Rager Pie. In one moment tears welled as chosen on his words and then started singing, from deep inside his heart, to answer one of my questions.

Beijing, China or elsewhere. It’s stories I seek, people’s stories, their lives. Locals, expats, and even wayfaring wanderers, like me. This is why I travel. And this is what I will always share here.

IMG_4528

Enjoy these and other photos from some of our wandering through the hutongs of Beijing

1 reply
  1. Buck
    Buck says:

    Hey Allan!

    Sounds like you got a pretty authentic introduction to Beijing. So sorry we missed each other!

    I’d say your description of Beijing expat life is pretty accurate. In some ways it’s fun and exciting as it offers otherwise unavailable opportunities (as with the musicians you met), but at the same time there is this too easy tendency to recede away from the local culture, the “Beijing Bubble” as my girlfriend and I came to know it. This was in fact one of the primary motivations for us to do our own motorcycle trip around China!

    Hope you had a good trip here. Looking forward to reading more.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *