Wei was born in Beijing and left when he was 15 years old. He, and Karin, returned l last year.
They elected to live in the inner city so it’s been a privilege to have a taste of their life in a hutong. Hutongs, the heart and soul of Beijing, are alleys formed by lines of traditional courtyard residences. Neighbourhoods were formed by joining one residence to another to form a hutong, and then joining one hutong to another. Hutong also refers to the neighbourhoods of alleys. Many hutongs have been demolished to make way for new housing, others have fallen into disrepair and are low cost accommodation while others have become protected historical areas.
Karen and Wei’s home in the hutong, is one of the few in the alley that has been renovated, with the rooms wrapping around a small courtyard, a remnant of a much larger courtyard from times long ago. Wei calls his serene courtyard a ”chaoasis”. An oasis from the chaos that is sometimes life in Beijing. Sitting in the sanctuary of their courtyard it is impossible to believe that there is a city of 27 million people just outside its walls.
Karin is an amazing cook with a passion for Chinese cuisine. We have been treated to a dazzling array of treats from across the country, all created in her tiny kitchen. Her banquets start northern style, with a selection of cold dishes such as marinated cucumber, jellyfish with chilli, lotus root salad, shredded bean curd, three flavoured salad and woodear mushroom salad. She follows this with an array of hot dishes such as steamed eggplant with cumin, asparagus in chicken broth, duck and winter melon soup, tree bark with egg, pork cooked in red fermented beans, chicken with peanuts, sticky rice in lotus leaves and garlic steamed prawns. The dishes have exotic names such as La pi, Gong Bao and Su Dong Po but I have been at a loss to remember them and put them with the correct dishes. I have learnt that Chinese cuisine is as much about texture and appearance as it is about flavour. Karin tells me I must first eat the food with my eyes. Her banquets are made more special by the fact that she gathers the ingredients from the local stalls and transports them home on her bike.
We step directly out of Karin and Wei’s home into the street of the Hutong. The Hutong buzzes with life; there is a tiny convenience store across the alley which operates 24 hours a day, small restaurants and bars can be found round corners, people hang their washing in the lanes and old people sit on door steps watching the world go by.
Many of the Hutong dwellings don’t have toilets, so the solution has been to provide public bathrooms, which are kept immaculately clean, but it is funny to see people wandering about in their PJ’s. Thankfully we didn’t have to do that, I would have hated a midnight dash.
I have learnt from our brief time in the hutong that the outside of a building does not reflect the beauty inside. Karin has taught me to look past the outside, up over the walls to the trees. The size and type of the tree is a good indicator of the age and original prestige and size of a property.
I will always treasure our stay with Wei and Karen in their Beijing hutong and part of me is envious of the close communal life that the hutong residents share.