The Gentrification of Beijing’s Hutongs Is Evident in Music
In our last column we discussed the “Brooklynization” of Beijing’s hutong neighborhoods, a process that shows parallels with areas like Bushwick. Here we’ll dig a bit deeper into the phenomenon, examining how gentrification in Beijing’s hutong takes on a distinct local shape, for better and for worse, perhaps as the front line of a transformation in urban Chinese culture.
We begin with an extreme case: Nanluoguxiang, Beijing’s best-known hutong. In barely 10 years Nanluoguxiang has been transformed from a sleepy residential alley into a perpetually thronged tourist destination, specializing in throwaway tchotchkes, Tibetan totems and fried food on sticks. It has changed so much that the façade of the inevitable local Starbucks, opened in 2013, manages with brutal irony to be one of the least offensive affronts to the history and culture of the street.
Dominic Johnson-Hill, a British expat who arrived in Beijing in the early ‘90s, first encountered Nanluoguxiang after moving into an artist friend’s apartment there in 2003: “There were xiaomaibu [small bodegas], a couple of restaurants, the kind of stuff you’d find on a normal hutong.” After a number of business ventures he opened his Plastered design shop in 2006, which quickly took off. In his shop’s early days Johnson-Hill ate dinner with his family in the middle of the street, often stretching out for a game of badminton afterwards. Now he can barely walk on Nanluoguxiang for more than a few yards without bombing a tourist selfie.
Having occupied a rare place as a foreign elected official in the commercial section of the neighborhood government for five years, Johnson-Hill saw the development process firsthand. The 2008 Olympics and subsequent construction of a nearby subway station, complemented by advertisements in public transportation, drove foot traffic to its current peak. By 2010, he says, rent on Nanluoguxiang became prohibitively expensive for most creative businesses. In 2016, its many food stalls optimize small storefront space against massive foot traffic, while the hutongs that branch out along the lane are themselves colonized by tourists searching for a more authentic Beijing.
There are more hopeful examples of hutong development. Wudaoying, a quieter alley located a mile northeast, favors a crowd of 20-something Chinese hipsters. Many of the businesses on Wudaoying were opened by locals who studied in Europe and North America and returned to start their own vintage clothing shop or Western restaurant, says artist Rania Ho, co-founder of nearby gallery Arrow Factory.
“After 2008, Beijing opened up to a lot of things. Tastes have changed, and returning students are a driving force in the more commercial parts of Wudaoying. They saw something that they thought was really interesting, and wanted to bring it back.”