From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia…
Hutongs (simplified Chinese: 胡同; traditional Chinese: 衚衕; pinyin: hútòng; Wade–Giles: hu-t’ung) are a type of narrow streets or alleys, commonly associated with northern Chinese cities, most prominently Beijing. Many neighbourhoods were formed by joining one siheyuan (courtyard) to another to form a hutong, and then joining one hutong to another. The word hutong is also used to refer to such neighbourhoods. Since the mid-20th century, the number of Beijing hutongs has dropped dramatically as they are demolished to make way for new roads and buildings.
For the past week I have spent the best part of each day just wandering around the Qingyun and Dongjiaominxiang Hutongs near Tiananmen Square. When you don’t have a schedule to follow, it’s fun and easy to get lost in the hutongs. I can generally tell what direction I’m headed, and when in doubt the compass function on an iPhone comes in handy, so getting totally lost is never a real issue. Besides, if you walk long enough in any one direction you’ll eventually find your way out.
One morning I ventured out of the hostel at 7:00 a.m. and noticed people carrying chamber pots to the public toilets. Few if any of the houses in the hutongs have running water. While motorcycles and satellite dishes are prominent, it’s not hard to imagine what these neighbourhoods would have looked like in the Qing, Ming or even Yuan Dynasties. I came across a plaque on the Fujian Tingzhou Guild Hall indicating that it was built in 1488. Sadly, many of the buildings are being demolished to make way for higher density housing. I’m glad I was here in 2015 as it will look very different in a few years.
By day you’ll see vendors on three-wheeled carts selling fruits and vegetables, toilet paper, housewares, or collecting paper, cardboard and metal for recycling. Each one calls out the service they’re offering as they make their way up and down the narrow laneways.
It was on one of these walks on Friday afternoon that I noticed the words “Li Qun” painted on several brick walls, sometimes accompanied by an arrow or a crude drawing of a duck. I had no idea what this referred to until I came across an English language sign outside the Li Qun Roast Duck Restaurant.
It’s so far out of the way that it could hardly be called a tourist trap, yet with an English sign I knew that it was unique. I wasn’t sure if that was “unique” in a good way or a bad way, but the sign made it clear that visitors were welcome so I decided to check it out.
The hallway leading to the main courtyard is lined with photos of celebrity diners. I don’t know if the celebs stopped coming in 2010, or if the owner just stopped photographing them, but most photos were from the 1990s and early 2000s and only a few from the last decade. Aside from “famous movie star Jet Li” I didn’t recognize many of the Chinese celebs.
I did recognize the names of many washed-up politicians, including: Donald Evans, US Secretary of Commerce; Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis; Canada’s (former) Ambassador to China, David Mulroney; and US Senator Diane Feinstein.
On the way into the restaurant you actually walk through a portion of the kitchen where I watched two men use long metal poles to hang ducks in the ancient fruitwood fired oven. Another group of staff sat a table in the middle of the restaurant picking meat off bones.
At first glance the restaurant didn’t appear to be very busy but I soon realized that most of the customers were dining in private rooms that circle the centre courtyard. A young boy emerged from the private room closest to my table and stood a few feet from me for about five minutes, apparently transfixed at the sight of a bald white guy.
As far as I could tell, the “Dinner for One” included a whole roast duck, plus assorted side dishes, so I opted for something a little lighter. I ordered two sides: braised corn with pine nuts and sautéed green peppers in sugar and soy sauce. For my main course I went with a plate of “duck bones” rather than the whole roast duck. It was a fraction of the price of the whole duck and from a grainy photo on the menu it appeared to be small morsels of meat that would be more than enough for an early dinner. The waitress didn’t speak a word of English but she clearly didn’t think I had made a good choice. I assumed that she was trying to up-sell me on the much more expensive “whole roast duck” so I stuck to my guns. In hindsight, I’m sure she returned to the kitchen and had a good laugh with the other staff. It probably went something like, “Cheap bastard at Table 4 has nooooo idea what he’s getting.”
My food arrived after about 20 minutes and there was plenty of it. The corn was sweet, as advertised, and the peppers were indeed sautéed in sugar and soy sauce. I probably wouldn’t order either a second time but they were fresh and pretty much as advertised on the menu.
The plate of duck bones turned out to be, well, a plate of duck bones. There was very little meat unless you count the connecting tissue of the neck and the entire head and bill. After picking away at the dish for 20 minutes I decided that I really wasn’t that hungry.
The very shy little boy wasn’t my only visitor. Another boy of about four stood in front of my table with his back to me for a few minutes while his father stood 2 metres away, apparently reading email on his phone. Now, I have enough practice in the art of stealth photography to tell the difference between reading email and framing up a photo, so I motioned for dad to come over and take a selfie with me. He was beaming from ear to ear!
After about 100 photos of me and the boy at the table, me waving with dad standing, dad waving with me seated, dad waving with me standing, kid seated with thumbs up, kid standing with thumbs, and a few other poses, I asked the father to take a few photos with my camera. I really don’t know what this says about me or them but I think I made their day.
If I can convince some others from the hostel to join me, I’ll return some evening and order the whole roast duck. It has to be better than duck bones.
I know this sounds terribly conceited, but I also want to see if the photo of me and the kid in the red shirt is posted in the hallway alongside those of Al Gore and the royal family of Thailand.