Beijing: Hutong

My lack of sleep began to hit hard as we returned to Beijing. I was about to ask to cancel dinner together, fearing that I would nod off. But Kenny and Lee would hear nothing of it; we arrived at a shiny bright restaurant with at least half a dozen uniformed parking attendants. As we entered the broad glass doors, a cadre of eight young women in formation chirped a sentence-long greeting in synch. To the right was a series of pools and tanks teaming with live fish, frogs, squid and octopi, geoducks, mussels, shrimp, lobster, crabs, and so on. To the left the dining area. It was a Hong Kong – style place, said Kenny. The sturgeon, shrimp, mussels were tasty, though I’m not big on molluscs or crustaceans. The fresh-kill aspect puts me off a little. The pea shoots were excellent. Chrysanthemum tea, the yellow local beer.

Service at the table was in keeping with the greeting: very high touch, forward, almost aggressive, as if it were measured by the speed and number of unnecessary plate changes. I suppose this helped me stay awake. I have some hang-ups with being served. For example, I get a little uncomfortable when, in a grocery store, they won’t let me pack my bags. I asked Kenny whether the fact that there seemed to be at least as many service personnel as diners in the full restaurant was normal. “They know that nobody come back if service is not good” he said, not catching my drift. Dinner for three came out to about $25 US.

Kenny thoughtfully set me up with a cell phone in case I got lost over the next three days of solo exploration. I bade the cephalopods a futile farewell; the greeter squadron ladies performed their parting piece; I slept.

The next morning early I rolled out the Brompton into Beijing traffic. I stopped often to study a map and orient myself, concerned that I’d get hopelessly lost without a good set of mental breadcrumbs. I realized soon that the hazy sun, the ring roads, and minor bodies of water were going to be my main navigational devices, because very few buildings in modern Beijing are much taller than their peers, and they are remarkably the same. forbidden city The street names are given in Roman characters at major crossings, but those long names, difficult for my European-language-programmed brain to remember, often differed from each other in only a few characters; moreover, the names of the streets seemed to change every few blocks, and my map didn’t show most of the changes. Even the parks on the map were hard to recognize in proximity, because they are walled up like everything else.

Beijing is a maze. The built environment in China seems governed overwhelmingly by the idea of boundaries, walls, gates, doors, inside and outside. The more conspicuous, abrupt and redundant these boundaries, the better. Take away these features and very little notable remains. I began to suppose this is among the seductions of the car uniquely powerful to the Chinese, a little tinted-window Forbidden City for everyman. A few years after two Americans rode from Constantinople to introduce bicycles to China, the last emperor, Pu Yi, ordered holes cut into the walls of the Forbidden City so he could ride his bicycle freely. That was then; today: not even this American’s folding bike went inside.

There aren’t a lot of old buildings, at least not in compare to newer. From the 50′s through the 80′s went up dull socialist international style buildings, differing mainly in degree of decay. 90s and later buildings are glassy, frequently with ostentatious Vegas/Disney-style touches including decorative phrases in bad English grammar seldom rising to the level of humor.

The major exception, growing more minor by the hour, are the hutong or alleyway complexes of older, single-level courtyard houses and other small buildings. I spent many hours wending my way aimlessly through them. hutongI took a jerky video clip of one passage like many others, showing ordinary hutong life.

I’ve always liked alleyways, as frequently the only unplanned space in otherwise planned places, the negative space where unexpected things are more likely to happen — things that, while not always good, are usually far better than what many people fear. Meanwhile, highly programmed events and places like holidays or amusement parks — or tourist attractions — seldom match expectations, and seem to me like a false substitute for the risks and rewards of winging it. For the most part I skirted tourist attractions in Beijing; I took no guided tours; maybe I’ll bike to the Great Wall next time. The bike was all the glass-bottom-boat I desired; I could float quickly through the passages that might have bored or discomforted me as a pedestrian, yet at any moment I could slow or halt and study any details that called out. My Brompton track-stand is almost Centaurian. The main thing is that I was seeing Beijing as many Beijingers saw it, at least superficially.

The hutong are disappearing in the construction boom, being destroyed for the land they occupy, and in part because they reflect a modesty inconsistent with the go-go image planners are striving to present to the world by the 2008 Olympic Games. You can’t fit cars in most of them. The hutong are filled with clotheslines, refuse, bicycles and tricycles, children playing, and the occasional mysterious piece of flesh hanging to cure. The bathrooms are communal; the handful of hutong that have been selected for preservation are being fitted with ultra-sleek modern restrooms, as incongruous as 2001‘s monolith. Below is a fresh rubble pile in one alleyway; I found the mannequins amid the ruins somewhat chilling. They haul construction debris away with tricycles. hutongruins

I hadn’t yet gotten any local currency (yuan), so I kept eyes open for an ATM linked to the various international systems. I found one and tried my card, only to be told that my PIN was incorrect. Now, I remember my PIN by the word it spells, not the numbers. And the keypads on these ATMs had only numbers. What’s more, their layout is different from US ones, so muscle memory was no help in reconstructing what my PIN works out to in numbers. I began sketching US keypads and wondering why I thought that A, B, and C mapped to “2″ instead of to “1,” and weren’t there some other characters mapped to “1,” and what were they, and why? I was pretty sure I figured out the numbers in spite of these doubts, but this one machine, and then another, and finally four over the course of a long day all told me that my PIN candidates were wrong, on all four of the cards I tried.

I wasn’t going to let the quest for pocket money rule or ruin my day, so I just kept riding. I meandered along a lake, stopping to watch people haul rather large fish out of its murky waters. A fellow with one leg stripped and dove in for a swim. I sat at a bench perusing my map, and a young guy nearby, eager to practice his English, asked me my opinion about … sports. “I don’t follow sports, really.” He listed all the sport names he knew, questioningly. “I like bicycling. That is my sport, though I do not compete.” He didn’t seem to recognize bicycling as a sport; certainly his own bicycle bore no resemblance to sporting equipment. He proceeded to ask me my opinions of:
* architecture

* religion

* science and technology

* the nine planets (listed)

* the cooking of meat

* “the very famous state of Ohio”

* aquatic life forms

* Beijing

I couldn’t say much worthwhile about any of these (and many more) broad headings. I did say that I was finding Beijing interesting. He said he hated Beijing. By this time a small crowd of young people had gathered to listen to our awkward conversation. Three or four chimed in that they, too, hated Beijing. “Why?” I asked. “Because we are poor!” “That seems to be changing” I offered. He asked “What kind of car do you have?” “I don’t have a car. I am a bicyclist. I like bicycling.” “What kind of car is the best?” “I don’t like cars at all.” “How much money do you make every month?” I gave him a straight answer, which was too complicated to follow. This wasn’t going too well. I told him I wanted to go, friendly. “Good bye, pleased to meet you!” he said formally as I rode off on my funny overpriced bicycle, leaving him and the crowd and their forlorn rides to wonder, I suppose.

I rode for a few more hours, stopping at each ATM I saw; unfortunately this kept me in and around the duller parts of town with internationally-connected banks. By the time I accepted the fact that my cards weren’t going to work, it was getting dark, and I hadn’t had a morsel or drop since breakfast. Faint and trembly, I made for the hotel at the height of rush hour.

Western drivers operate by a pretty rigid notion of rights and (sometimes) responsibilities. When a right is violated, people get really angry. The rights-and-responsibilities model, when it works, means that driving can be a mindless activity, a simple playing out of rules. It evolved this way, I suppose, because the amount of time people in car cultures spend thus encaged engenders desire to escape mentally if not actually. But it often doesn’t work because the tedium dulls senses and social skills. Rules get broken, horns and airbags get deployed, people get mad and hurt. It’s supposed to work like a clock, but there’s always a grain of sand or two to bring it to a fuming halt.

In Beijing, in contrast, right of way is held only tentatively, in a constant state of negotiation with others nearby. Everybody is continually “cutting off” everybody else, going the wrong way, veering into lanes of their own fleeting creation, but nobody seems to get angry. Taxis queue in the bike lanes, bicyclists run lights, and jaywalkers brave ten-lane roads without anybody getting bent out of shape. Honking the horn means “kindly note that I am traversing your blind spot, esteemed telephone conversationalist.” Honking back means “acknowledged with gratitude, once and future tricycle jockey!” Everybody must pay attention. Traffic is thick and sometimes slow, but it never seems to stop. It flows like blood in a body with countless hearts. I’m sure bad things happen in Beijing traffic, but I didn’t see any. Meanwhile, outside Asia, an apparently similar shared space model of traffic is heralded as a pioneering Dutch invention.

My first frightening impressions of Chinese driving technique had eased over the day to recognition of a more harmonious disorder than prevails in America. Street manners are wonderfully relaxed; not mellow, but improvisational, opportunist. Walkers, bikers, drivers mingle without alarm or rancor. In the later dusk, none of the cars even turn on their lights, and mine were the only lights at all on any bicycle I saw there. The scene would strike terror and certainty of imminent death in any American city, but here it was just the daily five minutes of heaven, dancing in the dark, feeling without touching, wheeling free.

I regret not having any video of riding in dense traffic, but all of the “can you believe this?” passages definitely required me not to be operating a hand-held camera. Especially wondrous were the major crossings, undertaken with dozens or more other cyclists nudging their way interstitially through torrents of cars and trucks going 35 MPH and faster.

While the dynamics of riding a bike in Beijing are great, as I’ve noted previously the social and cultural aspects are somewhat depressing. With the single exception of the hotel porter who told me he rode 30km daily, I never saw any clear indicators of joy or pride in bicycles or bicycling per se among the tens of thousands of cyclists I pedaled past. A shocking proportion ride with saddles too low, handlebars askew, chains dragging, hunched over and bobbing, very, very slowly. They pedal with the arch instead of the ball of the foot over the pedal spindle, seemingly without exception, and I looked long. Frequently the pedal platforms are gone, so the bare spindles settle in the crook of their shoes’ heels. I used to think these were marks of inexperienced cyclists; now I know they can also indicate merely an indifference to technique or maintenance so profound it’s beyond the reach of pain to correct.

No wonder Chinese bicyclists in their hundreds of millions appear to want cars, and will make huge sacrifices to get them, preferably stylish ones. The idea of spending a tiny fraction of that cost on better bicycles, stylish ones that can go fast, comfortably, safely, that can carry things and maybe have lights and so on, this idea is nowhere in evidence, unless the “no pedal” bicycle motorization trend can be substituted. They don’t seem to want to improve the working model of bicycle transportation they already have, but to replace it with an automotive one unthinkable, or unthinkably grim, on China’s scale. “A new life awaits you in the Off-World colonies.”

No wonder Lan the controller engineer thought Stokemonkey’s driven pedals and gear-shifting was nuts: his notion of bicycling and of the value of a motor are completely incompatible with it. I feel freshly conflicted about offering assist motors for bikes in America, in view of the obvious position of this technology in China as a complete replacement, rather than as a discretionary complement to human power.

I have supposed that bicycling is a more central part of my identity than language, nation, genes — that I had more essential in common with any practical bicyclist anywhere in the world than most any non-cyclist. I believed that bicycles as transportation were inexorably an expression of certain values, and that a distinct strain of culture would spring from these values everywhere the material conditions were favorable. Just one day in Beijing rid me of this idea, and now it strikes me as shockingly naive. It seems to hold across some cultures; I’m waiting for my honorary Dutch citizenship any day now. But Beijing alone is about as populous as the whole Netherlands, twenty or so times as big as Amsterdam. China is the largest cycling civilization that may ever be, and they seem determined to gut it.

  1. Arrival
  2. Gay shepherds
  3. The controller shop
  4. The motor shop
  5. Kites and jets
  6. Hutong
  7. Zombies, animatrons, and the UNICEF guard
  8. Tiananmen Square demonstration
  9. Getting lost and getting home

8 thoughts on “Beijing: Hutong”

  • veloboy

    Great post Todd! I love this travelogue and check in daily for updates.
    Please don’t get disheartened by the attitudes of the masses in China. They are on the brink of a revolution (from bike to car) which, ill fated as it is, must feel as exciting and progressive to them as the cyling revolution feels to us (or at least to me).
    The Chinese love affair with the motorcar won’t last long (it just won’t be physically possible) and they’ll realise that they had it right the first time. I’m sure they’ll find other ways to display their affluence (which is what I think the whole car thing is about for them).
    The carless movement is real, timely and gaining momentum so I emplore you to keep soldiering on. Your thoughts and ideas have reached across vast distances to (thank you Internet) and are spreading (I’m spreading the message over here in NZ). The industrialised West seems to be what developing nations are striving to emulate – let’s give them something truely awesome to aim for!

    (Organic One Wheel Drive)

  • Tarik Saleh


    Excellent reports! keep them coming.


  • 'Full Throttle' Mike
    'Full Throttle' Mike April 11, 2006 at 4:32 am

    Wonderful story Todd. A few comments:

    I prefer the immediate kill. There is an opportunity to thank that which I’m about to eat. When it has eyes, you can look right into the abyss. Awe-full and tastes great.

    Having been a waiter for many years, I really like good service, especially when it’s taken to the highest levels. This is rarely seen in the US, where hands-on service of this nature is usually seen as demeaning. China sounds like a very labor-intensive place.

    Having only seen China from the movies, and indirectly from studying chi kung and tai chi for a long time, I am really impressed by the crush of life there. There are soooo many people. I was going to say that they seem to be going through the motions more than we do, but I’m not sure that’s it. I think it’s more apparent from being out in the open–not locked up behind the mini tinted window palaces–and from the scale. There_is_something about the drudgery of life conjured up by your description of beat-up bikes with beat-up people riding them that seems more honest than people-in-cars-yapping-on-cellphones-drinking-coffee- listening-to-the-radio-hurrying-to-work-while-stuck-in-a-traffic-jam.

    As for the motor-assist thing, some people will definitely use it in ways you did not intend, but I think the net will still be less gas usage and more activity than existed before you started your venture, which to me sounds like a meaningful endeavor.

    Keep on truckin’ ;-)

  • [...] China might not have gone completely car mad, after all: China backs bikes to kick car habit. Compare this to a previously linked story from five years ago: Bicycle No Longer King of the Road in China. [...]

  • Erik Sandblom

    Very interesting about how they don't care about their bikes. TIME had an article June 14th 2009 about electric bikes in China. Is it your observation that these bikes don't require the user to pedal?

    TIME: On the Streets of China, Electric Bikes Are Swarming

    Even if they don't care to pedal, they might continue to appreciate some of the bicycle's other practical advantages: it's easy to park, nimble in traffic, can go along narrow paths, light enough to manhandle, affordable, and provides mobility to those without a driver's license.

  • Mikael

    Why should there be 'joy' about it? It's the same in any major bicycle friendly nation - Denmark and Holland included. Crappy bikes used by regular people.

    Who cares? We've demystified the bicycle in the major bike nations. We're not 'cyclists', enthusiasts, fetishists.

    We just ride a bike because it's the quickest way to get around. For the majority the bicycle is merely a tool, not an object of desire.

    In Copenhagen we ride because we can. Low saddles are effective for stop/start conditions in the traffic. We're not in the tour de france, we're just going to work or the supermarket. Rust? that's what makes a bike charming. always has, always will.

    feel free to be an enthusiast... nothing wrong with that... stamp collectors love stamps, bike collectors/enthusiasts love bikes... but for the masses, the bicycle is a tool - which has been the whole point of the bike since it was invented.

  • Erik Sandblom

    Good points Mikael. But what about Fahrvergnügen?

  • Todd (admin)

    Hi Mikael -

    My views have shifted a bit in your direction in the 3 years since I wrote this, but I think you're being a little disingenuous if you mean that joy in biking implies fetishism, geeky enthusiasm, etc. We're talking about using our bodies in a pleasant manner after all. What I observed in China was a lot of misery in biking, and ambition to leave it behind, a downward spiral of social conditioning and material neglect.

    I agree that saddles for everyday bikes should be low enough to the ground for ease in start/stop conditions, particularly when kids and groceries are aboard. But the right way to get it is to have a bike with a relatively relaxed seat tube angle and low bottom bracket, such that you still get proper leg extension in pedaling. Without near-full leg extension we're talking knee pain and unnecessary fatigue, and there's nothing charming in that! I don't think affecting indifference to any and all matters of bike design, adjustment and maintenance is an effective response to the excesses of "enthusiasm."

    As for "the whole point of the bike since it was invented," I too used to believe that the current surge of interest in bikes as tools is in fact a re-surgence or recovery of what bikes were before the rise of motor transport, a return to a golden age lasting less than 30 years. But as I have researched the matter more carefully, I see that with very few exceptions (less exceptional in Denmark, but Denmark is itself exceptional in so many ways... how can you celebrate the ordinariness of anything in that context?) bikes have overwhelmingly been made, sold, used and re-sold, and finally abandoned as objects of desire, emblems of status and leisure, vehicles of personal expression, group identity, etc. You celebrate some of these aspects, even! So, we're counter-flow even now, not a same-as-it-ever-was revival.

    It seems to me like a Scandinavian, or more general wealthy protestant cultural trait to cloak the highest pleasures and luxuries in the plainest clothes, with cool protestations of frugality and modesty appropriate to the masses.

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