For Maja Linnemann, a native of Bremen, Germany, there are few
pleasures in Beijing as fine as strolling through the hutongs,
"When you go into a hutong, it is so quiet. It is like a small
oasis, a little paradise to me," she said.
Unlike many of the tourists walking through the capital's famed
courtyard homes, Linnemann is on a serious mission checking to make
sure Beijing's siheyuan, (traditional residential compounds native
to North China), are being adequately protected from
Linnemann participated in a nine-month project called "Friends
of Old Beijing" that was organized by the Beijing Cultural Heritage
Protection Center (www.bjchp.org) in October 2006.
The NGO asked volunteers to go for regular walks among the
hutongs to help monitor conditions in old parts of the city.
Linnemann and three other volunteers, one from Shanghai and two
from the US, were assigned to check up on six hutongs in the Dongsi
Experts taught the volunteers about old Beijing's layout and
legal efforts to protect the city's cultural heritage. One
equipped, the group took their first stroll through the hutongs on
a cold winter day in December, taking photos and notes when needed.
And they did not restrict themselves to the exterior parts of the
hutongs they also walked inside.
"If you only go to a hutong once or twice, you will find it very
nice and romantic. But if you go often into the siheyuan, it is
very crowded. Sometimes you can see like 20 or 25 electricity
meters (reflecting the large number of people living inside), and
that is very astonishing," Linnemann said.
Many siheyuan do not even have a courtyard because of new
construction inside. It can be difficult to find an original
"Sometimes when we see half of a chuihuamen (decorated gate)
covered in concrete, because something is being built, it makes us
feel so sad. It is like looking at an old man, who had a rich life,
but now is sick and nobody cares for him."
In general, the hutong in the area to which her group was
assigned are in good condition, she said.
In addition to her fondness for the actual hutongs, Linnemann
said she was drawn to the project by the possibility that she might
get to talk to the residents and understand their lives.
"When we walked in the cold winter mornings, people would ask us
to come into the house and have some tea. It is not so easy to get
to talk to people in Germany," she said.
Through those conversations, she said she was able to understand
Beijingers' take on life.
"There is not very much appreciation among the local people (for
protection work)," she said. "People want to leave the old houses
and prefer better living. I understand this."
In Beijing, it is common for several families to live within a
"When your neighbor is coughing and quarrelling, you have to
hear it. You have no privacy. You don't have your own bathroom. It
is a very low standard of living there," she said.
"Hutong are so typical of China, and they are what makes Beijing
Beijing," she said.
Eventually, her group will write a report for the reference of
the local cultural heritage bureau. They will also choose 10 of the
most interesting buildings and design a heritage trail for
(China Daily April 24, 2007)