The picture above is a panoramic where you can clearly see the line between modernization and the ancient hutongs.  Though I’m not a huge fan of panoramics, this one stuck out to me well before I took it – the contrast couldn’t be more stark (click image to enlarge).

Earlier this month, my first stop on my 4,500+ mile adventure was in Beijing.  I had a meeting concerning Visa/Passport changes that I require in the coming months, but while I was in town I decided to spend some time shooting with my buddy Jonah Kessel, a Beijing based photojournalist.  With the redish/orange pollution of the early morning Beijing sky acting like a warming filter, we headed into the famous Beijing hutongs.

I’ve been somewhat interested in the hutongs from early on in my time in China.  I’ve even read multiple articles, essays, and books on them.  However, since I spend very little time in Beijing, I had yet to visit them despite warnings about “visit them before their culture disappears!”  All that to say I was excited to be able to spend some time in these culturally rich landmarks for an afternoon.

The hutongs in Beijing are extensive networks of narrow alleyways that traditionally made up the homes and neighborhoods of Beijing residents.  They still bustle with activity – shops everywhere, whole families sitting outside playing mahjong, old women bickering about whatever there is to bicker about, and old men wandering the alleyways looking for something to do.  These alleyways make up a huge portion of Chinese culture in Beijing.  Infact, they started showing up as early as the Zhou Dynasty (1027 – 256 BC).  Later in Beijing history, these hutongs served as administrative districts, much like modern day neighborhoods and city-based ‘districts.’  Walking through you can literally see how vast the hutong’s histories are.  I talked to several men who had lived in the hutongs their entire life.  “Infact,” one man told me, “I don’t remember a time when our families didn’t live in the hutongs!”

Controversy has arisen recently surrounding the hutongs.  In some areas up to 75% of the hutongs that once existed have now vanished and been replaced with modern buildings and high-rise apartment complexes.  However, many of the areas that critics claim have been torn down due to over-zelous developers are actually just in ill-repair and have been torn down for safety reasons.  “Some of these hutongs are just so old that they literally fall over!” a man told me while pointing at a pile of ruble that used to be a home.  The debate over the hutongs continues, and interestingly enough the loudest voices in the matter tend to be foreigners will little or no vested interest in the area other than that of perserving culture.

Nonetheless, the hutongs are an extremely valuable source for understanding Chinese culture and history in Beijing.

Hutong represents an important culture element of Beijing city. Thanks to Beijing’s long history and status as capital for six dynasties, almost every hutong has its anecdotes, and some are even associated with historic events. In contrast to the court life and elite culture represented by the Forbidden City, Summer Palace, and the Temple of Heaven, the hutongs reflect the culture of grassroots Beijingers. The hutongs are residential neighborhoods which still form the heart of Old Beijing.  – Wikipedia