Beijing Hutong spirit alive and well

Updated: September 27 2010(GMT+08:00)

For visitors to Beijing looking to escape the high-rise havoc of the CBD, Wudaoying offers a quaint retreat.

Once a strictly residential hutong area, Wudaoying was opened to businesses and pedestrians in 2006 and has since seen rampant growth. It is being hailed as the newer sibling of well-known Beijing shopping and bar street Nanluoguxiang, but Wudaoying is still new enough to exhibit the unique fusion of classic hutong life with the retro boutiques that are a throwback from the quickly changing lifestyle here.

But Nathan Zhang, owner of Brandnu, a shop in Wudaoying which sells items for charities and social enterprises, says the differences are like night and day.

"Our street is much quieter, much less populated than Nanluoguxiang. It s not as commercial and we don t want it to be," he says. "Here you get the real hutong feeling, the real Beijing feeling."

Located about 100 meters up Yonghegong Dajie across from the Yonghegong Lama Temple, the street is surrounded by bright blue metal construction hoardings - a sign of its growth as it fills with a combination of coffee shops, boutiques, restaurants and drinking rooms.

The dozen or so trendy boutiques that have popped up in recent years offer an eclectic mix such as the bizarre tin robots at the second hand store, Swap Meet, to artsy goods, such as the rack of tie-dyed sun dresses sold for charity at Brandnu.

Accompanying the shops are some of Beijing s newer courtyard-turned restaurants offering a variety of international fare.

Every restaurant on the street offers something new - whether it s the traditional Greek food eaten on a rooftop found at Argo or the Spanish paella served up in the dimly lit but cozy atmosphere at Saffron. The restaurants on the street seem to pull a good mixture of both Chinese and foreign clientele.

It s this variety that Will Yorke, who opened the street s first restaurant, The Vineyard Caf, in 2006, says will draw the crowds.

"I want the street to be individual, I want it to be different - I don t want it to be a row of coffee shops," he says,

"I hope there will continue to be more and more things for people to come and see. People need variety."

And that s just what the street has, from jazz at the Vanguard bar to grabbing a tan at Sunkissed Tanning Studio. It s teeming with options.

There is even a Confucius international youth hostel, converted to provide lodging for wayward travelers.

But perhaps the most charming aspect of this Beijing gem is the sense of community held by business owners and residents.

Adhering to the classic hutong attitude of community, both intertwine to create a comfortable, unflashy business district that doubles as a relaxing place to take a stroll.

"Here all of the business owners are all really nice, it s more of a community than a business street and people visiting the street get that feeling," Zhang says.

Part of the Dongcheng district, Wudaoying has a 700-year-old history that once saw it as a military post during the Ming (1368-1644) Dynasty.

Though growth to this area seems inevitable, if Wudaoying can manage to balance its old-world charm and its business acumen, it can easily become one of Beijing s modern cultural hot spots, just like Nanluoguxiang.

"There s certainly a lot of potential here, and though it s not quite there yet, there s big room to grow," says Yorke.

News Source: Chinadaily
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