When you live in a city, alleys are generally something that you avoid — after all, guys duck into alleys if they can’t find a bathroom, and after watching years and years of “Law and Order”, we all know that bad things lurk in dark alleys, just waiting to jump out at you.
But then you get to China. Yes, there are still some alleys that you might want to steer clear of, but in other places, they have taken the concept of “alley” and turned it into something else entirely.
In Beijing, the alleys are called hutongs, and they even have their own names. Since they are rhapsodized as “quaint” and “quintessential China”, we figured that they were worth a look-see after we visited the Drum Tower. Our guidebook was lamenting that the hutongs surrounding the Drum Tower were under a lot of pressure to be torn down in favor of glittering new buildings, so this might be our last chance!
We entered a narrow alley, which led to another narrow alley, which led to another narrow alley . . . at least the alleys didn’t curve, but it began to remind me of one of those Labyrinth games with the marbles and the little knobs on the side that change the slant of the maze. We noticed that every couple of turns, there was two doors marked “TOILET” — the people who live in the hutongs do not have toilets in their home, thus the community toilets. We encountered the occasional stray pup or kitty, and passed by several people who looked at us curiously (“Oh, hell, more lost tourists . . .”) We would hear drifts of staccato television laughter wafting from windows, occasionally. In one dead-end, we stood, considering our next direction as we were watched by an older Chinese woman. When we looked around a corner, wondering if it was a dead-end or led to another walkway, the woman hurried in front of us, waved her arms and shook her head. Ooops — that was her home. We backed away with apologies and she smiled. Later, we passed another group of people shooting the breeze on the low steps, three younger men and an old woman with grey hair in a straw hat, clogs and a navy blue smock and pants, sitting with her arms around her knees. As we passed, the guys stopped talking to stare (“Oh, look, more lost tourists . . .”), but the old woman was absolutely delighted by us — she started clapping in glee as we walked by, with a big smile on her face. The shops we saw were mostly of the mundane style — one guy selling plumbing pipes, another selling mats, another selling kebobs — just an average neighborhood. I have to admit that the “romance” and the “charm” was lost on me, and I suspect that if you told the residents that their alley was “charming”, they might prefer to trade it for an in-house bathroom. Or maybe not.
Another hutong was just a small street with lots of shops and a Confucian temple where scholars would come to sit for the Imperial exam. To cut down on cheating, the student was locked into a cell about 1.5 m. square for three days to take the exam (there were 8,000 cells). Some of them couldn’t take it and broke down. The ones who did pass the highest level exam would have their names inscribed on a stone tablet, as a lasting recognition of their brilliant scholarly achievement.
Back in Shanghai, our welfare assistant, Marianne, suggested that we check out the Tianzifang, Shanghai’s “longfangs” or alleys. It’s part of the French Concession, and I missed it the last time I was wandering around down there. Now, THIS is what I call “charming”! Small, crowded alleys, but bursting with little shops (ok, a lot of overpriced schtick, but hey, that’s what bargaining is for), tiny restaurants and cafes (some with 3 tables, max), and atmosphere galore. There are a lot of small galleries selling one-of-a-kind arts and crafts, too, with some interesting takes on glass, leather and pottery.
The nice thing about these alleys is when you come out, you are still in the French Concession section of Shanghai, a haven of shady, tree-lined streets, beautiful architecture, charming gates and doors, and brick streets.