A touch of Qing Dynasty life

A woman cycling along a hutong.

AFTER several delays in Kuala Lumpur, 17 of us finally landed in Beijing past midnight, only to be quickly whisked away early next morning to Hebei and other remote areas like Nihewan to see the Peking Man and other historical sites.

Eight days later, we were hurtled into the main city — with the Forbidden City as our destination — on a scorching summer day.

We survived the long walk to our hotel, a delightful Qing Dynasty-style ‘Siheyuan’ turned into a modern six-room boutique hotel.

The place was home to an influential Qing official who must have been very wealthy as evident from the solid walls and floors.

There are six huge guest rooms on three different levels and it looked like the whole hotel was booked by our 17-strong group — four double rooms, one triple room — and one family room for the six guys.

A three-storey building with a penthouse must have been unheard of a century ago but to 21st century visitors, it’s certainly a welcoming sight.

We loved the modern facilities and the lavish Qing classic rooms — bright, airy, fashionable plus air conditioning.

As most buses are not allowed in many of the alleys and streets (one is, in fact, famously only one foot wide, according to records), many tourists who booked online, would be surprised by the distance they had to walk to their accommodation.

A plaque inscribed with the history of Beijing.

Hutongs (alleys)

Hutongs are narrow streets or alleys, commonly associated with northern Chinese cities, especially Beijing. They are formed by lines of Siheyuan or traditional courtyard residences.

Our home away from home was, thus, a Siheyuan, preserved and conserved by the various families who owned it since the Qing Dynasty.

Such residences have been protected by new government rulings so that this aspect of Chinese cultural history can be shared with the global community.

In fact, Hutongs were first set up in the Yuan Dynasty (1206–1341), then expanded in the Ming (1368–1628) and Qing (1644–1908) Dynasties.

The symbol of the Qing family who owned the original quadrangle courtyard home.

The term ‘hutong’ first appeared during the Yuan Dynasty, and had Mongolian origin, meaning ‘water well’ in the old days.

After the Mongols arrived in Beijing, many wells were dug, and some are even found in the middle of streets today. Wells have been a feature of most affluent homes in all of China, especially Beijing.

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Later, the term was used to refer to narrow streets or lanes, formed by quadrangle residences with walled courtyards.

In 1264, the young Kublai Khan decided to rebuild the city with clear ‘definitions of streets, lanes and hutongs’.

As an urban planner, he was way ahead of his time. A 36m wide road was called a ‘big street’, an 18m wide one, a ‘small street’ and a 9m wide lane, a ‘hutong’. A few hutongs from the Yuan Dynasty have been preserved.

The entrance to the quadrangle residence at Hotel Palace.

Unique hotel

Through the traditional double panelled door, we entered a small corridor to reach the reception area-cum common room of the hotel, big enough for all 17 of us to meet, discuss and share meals. This is the original courtyard with skylight.

The courtyard leads to a small dining room with a huge table — a feature one sees in many Chinese TV drama series set in the Qing era.

It’s a room meant for business or an official gathering. The interior decoration is superb with a lot of greens and flowers.

This Siheyuan or Qing residence has a fantastic location right in the heart of Beijing next to the Forbidden City. One could sit in the reception room for a long time, feeling the ambiance and even imagining an Imperial courtier might walk in any time.

The renovation has given the hotel a sumptuous facelift — several new staircases, a wonderful roof top annex and even an underground room (which could have saved many lives in the past). One could get lost here.

But the best part is the rooftop where one could see a large part of Beijing. Could a concubine have committed suicide here? Or could she have been imprisoned for months and then starved to death for misbehaviour?

A shady hutong on the way to Hotel Palace.

So booking a hotel like Palace Hotel and other similar hotels would be a preferred option. Besides visiting Tienanmen Square, if your feet were up to it, you should enjoy checking out the shops and the restaurants, especially Wangfujin.

The hutongs offer plenty of good food. Perhaps any Peking Duck restaurant would be good if you were not too fussy.

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Made over Siheyuan

The Palace Hotel, a renovated Siheyuan, is a private residence very popular in China, especially in Beijing.

In Chinese history, a house, enclosed by four walls, called a quadrangle building, was the basic design for housing, palaces, temples and government offices.

Kublai Khan initiated the Siheyuan.

According to written records, there are three types of Siheyuan — small, medium and big. For a small and simple Siheyuan, the main gate opens to face the south with the main rooms in the north for grandparents which also face south.

The corner rooms are for grandchildren, the west and east rooms are for sons and daughters, the rooms by the main gate facing north are used as the living room or studio.

For medium and big courtyard houses, there are more than one courtyard — two, three or even more with lots of rooms for high-ranking officials or rich merchants.

A room for six is enough for 17 people to hold a meeting.

The four buildings in a single courtyard get different amount of sunlight. The northern rooms receive the most sunshine and are, thus, used as the living room and bedroom for the eldest or patriarch of the family, usually the owner.

The eastern and western rooms get less sunlight and are used as rooms for the younger generation or guests while the southern rooms, just opposite the owner’s rooms, get the least sunlight and are used as rooms for service staff or studios.

Unmarried daughters lived in some secret parts of the Siheyuan — or an independent building. According to old traditional values, unmarried girls were not allowed to be seen in the public.

Today, with ever growing population in Beijing, the government has to plan well to accommodate the residents, and land is getting very scarce.

Although many of the hutongs have been demolished, there are still some 25 (lanes) and quadrangle courtyards be conserved for future generations.

 

Visiting hutongs by trishaws

For a small fee – say, RM50 — you can share a standard trishaw tour of the hutongs with a friend.

The driver is usually in a hurry to get to every point of interest along the way and then ask you to get down.

End of trip. End of story. Business done.

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I suppose our trishaw driver must have been so bored doing this kind of Hutong Trishaw Ride for millions of times. But he was fairly informative, telling us about government subsidies for wall improvements (a lot of cement given, for example) and how the roads have been improved and driving trishaws has become easier.

From him we learned the eastern and western hutongs, reserved for the upper class and the palace officials, were more spacious.

The northern and southern hutongs for commoners, artisans and merchants were smaller and simpler in design and decoration.

During the Qing Dynasty, there were about 900 hutongs, and in 1949, the number was 1,330. The new government has demolished many of them to build skyscrapers and apartments.

However, there is also a government protection policy to keep some as protected areas. Many hutongs are being restored and renovated in Beijing and tourists love to visit them the most.

 

Mei Langfan’s old residence

One of our stops during our trishaw ride was the former residence of Mei Langfan, the most famous Chinese Peking Opera singer.

Mei who introduced Chinese Peking Opera to the world, is memorialised in this museum, honouring him and Beijing Opera.

On the day of our visit, hundreds of students were entertained to a short demonstration of Beijing Opera. They were accompanied by their teachers while museum administrators were busy answering questions from tourists who dropped by to watch the goings-on from the wings.

The theatre was impressive and the students were seated in the same traditional way as the audience 200 years ago.

The costumes of the Beijing Opera singers were colourful and attractive but the singing was really loud, blaring out from loudspeakers at every corner of the theatre. Each demonstration was followed by a short explanation from the announcer.

Mei made successful tours to Japan, the US and the Soviet Union. Through these visits, he popularised the Chinese classical drama among foreign audiences. As a result, Peking Opera was better understood and appreciated.

Our hutong tour had to end rather hurriedly as we had to check out from our lovely hotel and dash to the airport.

Our stay in Beijing, though short, was so memorable that I felt my heart bursting with unfeigned flashbacks at the mere recall of the great time we had touring the fabulous Chinese capital. Yes, I left my heart in Beijing.

So who do you think should help me end this write-up but Confucius who said: “Wherever you go, go with all your heart.”