Beijing is synonymous with many things. For tourists, these include Tiananmen Square, The Forbidden City, and The Summer Palace. For those who live here however, nothing says Lao Beijing than Hutongs. Hutongs are alleys formed by the long walled courtyards of the homes of the wealthy. Here, the vestiges of an older way of life are gathered in small neighborhoods along these low-rise alleys. To wander in to one of these is to get lost in a maze of a different time. Where doors remain unlocked and the elderly gather along the door steps, their whole lives spent in these few square meters. Entire wardrobes hang haphazardly outside to air dry, and there are probably more possessions in the small courtyards than inside the rooms. Hutongs are more than just dwellings, but an entirely different pace and culture. The dialects spoken in them are unlike what you’ll hear on the streets. A garbled, warble-like tongue that ranges from a mumble to a lilt.
This past year however, life in the hutongs has meant more to me than the vestiges of a global city on the rise. It’s been my haven and second home. Followers of The Ricetrail know that for the past year, I’ve been teaching photography at The Hutong, a culinary and arts school that also serves as a community center. I absolutely love it there. Not just because of the novelty, or the amazing students I’ve had, but the amazing people I’ve met and the relationships I’ve formed. One of these is my friend Joel, head chef at The Hutong, a tea guru, and (I’m fairly certain) the modern incarnation of Confucius. The Hutong deserves it’s own entry (which is to come) but I when Joel offered me the chance to poke around his latest project, I couldn’t resist.
Doesn’t look like much yet, (especially the above photo, which… well.. is kind of lacking a roof.) But this is Joel and Youngcall’s latest project. A hutong hotel. Youngcall owns Tao Yao Bar, a gem in the middle of Beijing’s Houhai District. Together, they are like Batman and Robin of creativity, design and culinary arts. In a few short months.. this place is going to be unrecognizable for sure.
So, I mentioned that Joel is a chef and a tea master. And I’m sure by now you can see his affinity for hutongs. Well, he and Youngcall actually live in one as well. I fell in love with Chez Schuchat when I tagged along to a casual dinner a few weeks ago. Joel turned the courtyard into an amazing garden with bamboo, date trees (which are amazing and look like giant bonsai trees), as well as a herb and rose garden. Instead of a conventional dining room, they have a table in the courtyard with a giant umbrella. The perfect place to camp out and do a day’s worth of computer work.. on a rainy day. :)
I recently purchased a new lens (85mm 1.8 Nikon Prime) and my word.. I am so in love. It gives me razor-sharp images, and incredible bokeh. Oh and it lets me get all sneaky like and take candids like this one:
Not going to lie. Since hanging around Joel, I’ve developed an obsession for Chinese tea. We went to Maliandao, the local teal market.. and let’s just say, I came back with a lot more than I intended.
Chez Shuchat (and Youngcall!) is filled with all sorts of neat things from their amblings around the world. Like this lamp in the courtyard.
I found a tiny kitty at Youngcall’s bar. Small furry things do funny things to my heart. Have I mentioned how much I love my new 85mm?!?
Last but not least, Joel’s bike. I feel less like an eternal pedestrian here in Beijing, because almost everyone gets around on bikes. I’m not sure how they manage, but a whole family of three can fit on one of these (the father is usually quite tired, I’d imagine.) I’ve always been baffled by how these dainty Chinese girls are able to perch themselves on the back of a moving bike, and make it look so easy. I’ve realized two things:
1. it takes a good biker (i.e. one not afraid of their passenger digging their fingernails out of sheer terror)
2. necessity is the mother of invention. Sometimes, you just gotta get from point A to B.
Such was the case on Saturday. I finally was able to ride side-saddle (?) on the back of a Chinese bike. Omigosh. It was harrowing. Especially when Joel insists on biking like a madman. Going against traffic. DURING RUSH HOUR!!!!
I need a shot of myself on this thing to show how massive it is (my feet are almost a foot off the ground when I sit on the seat), but also for posterity. So I remember that I too can ride like a Chinese girl. Just maybe not so dainty-like though.