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THEY USED TO BE a common sight in Beijing but the city's culturally rich and historic hutongs (old lanes) are finding it challenging to survive in the new millennium.
Many disappeared in the lead-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, while others are fast undergoing a facelift in a bid to improve the image of the Chinese capital as a modern business and technology hub.
The government website has announced the shutdown of 2435 hutongs by the end of 2019; while an average of about 500 are slated for remodelling annually from now till then to the tune of 10 billion RMB (S$2.06 billion), after Dongcheng officials passed the hutong improvement programme in August 2014.
This move towards gentrification is not without controversy: some like Baochao Hutong which is just off the touristy Guluo Dongdajie near Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, has been spared a visit by the demolition crew. But some business owners have woken up to find their shopfronts being bricked up - a citywide phenomenon that has been termed The Brickening of Beijing on social media.
Affected tenants have fought back, improvising with speakeasy-style side entrances or even sharing doors with their unaffected neighbours, introducing an unintentionally quirky charm to the existing hutongs.
Others are taking the changes in their stride, embracing the gentrification while steadfastly still embracing the district's cultural roots - like bookshop-teahouse-museum Mofanshuju (31, Yangmeizhu Xiejie, Qianmen, Xicheng District) on the half-kilometre long Yangmeizhu hutong which was formerly home to many Chinese literary legends including writer Shen Congwen.
Run by a husband-and-wife team, the store specialises in the art of reproducing and reprinting books by hand - a craft that is all but lost in the digital age - and tips a hat to the area's historic past when several of China's biggest publishing houses were located there.
A few doors down, indie clothing and accessories boutique Triple Major (26 Yangmeizhuxie Xiejie / www.triple-major.com) retains the facade of an old medical hall to give Beijing's fashion tribe their dose of retail therapy, while the ultra-hip Soloist Coffee Co. (39 Yangmeizhu Xiejie) offers an alternative caffeine fix for the city's younger non-tea-drinkers.
Even as it undergoes transformation and commercialisation, Yangmeizhu hutong still retains the spirit and charm of Old Beijing because of the way it delicately balances the neighbourhood's mix of traditional and modern businesses.
Also staying firm in the quieter and neighbouring residential Beixiangfeng hutong sits a Beijing institution, Liqun Roast Duck Restaurant (11 Beixiangfeng Hutong, Dongcheng District).
Foreign dignitaries and celebrities including Anthony Bourdain have all dined in the homely eatery which has been converted from a house. That could be the reason why the dishes all taste authentically home-cooked and every part of the duck is used - heart, liver, gizzard, intestines, you name it!
Even though its chirpy white-haired owner Zhang Liqun, who used to work in the famous Quanjunde duck restaurant, no longer toils in front of the oven, one can find him shooting the breeze with his customers in the courtyard outside or good-naturedly taking a wefie or two with them in between sips of his tea.
For a full-blown gentrified hutong experience though, one only needs to head to the hipster enclave of Nanluoguxiang which has been transformed to boast several kilometres of shops, cafes and galleries.
One can easily spend a day here and get lost in the crisscrossing alleyways which offer every imaginable Beijing souvenir: from pre-packed Peking Duck to kitschy t-shirts and totes from the flagship Plastered8 store (61 Nanluoguxiang, Dongcheng District / www.plasteredtshirts.com) founded by Dominic Johnson-Hill, a Beijing-backpacker-turned entrepreneur.
Like the hutongs, the city's Chaoyang central business district is also being renewed and the newest kid on the block is Hotel Jen Beijing in the Guomao neighbourhood.
The 450-room five-star property, operated by the Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts Group, opened in May and is part of the fully-integrated China World Complex that includes adjoining office blocks and shopping malls
Targetted at millennials who seek a healthy work-life balance, it is the first hotel in Beijing to boast a co-working space - Prototype which doubles as a business centre complete with cafe and boardrooms - on the premises and a 24-hour gym Trainyard that has state-of-the-art exercise machines, a lap pool, plus yoga classes and after-hours boot camps.
The lobby gastropub Beersmith brews its own craft beers in a microbrewery on-site, while the all-day dining restaurant San Wu Tang serves a mean version of the popular street snack jianbing (pan-fried egg crepe) at breakfast.
Dubai-based design agency Stickman Tribe is behind Hotel Jen Beijing's chic urban decor and the Guomao subway located below the property provides fuss-free connections to the rest of the city via two major lines quickly - just what you need to catch Beijing's remaining hutongs.
- The writer was a guest of Hotel Jen Beijing (No.1 Jianguomenwai Avenue, Beijing, 100004, China). For reservations, email email@example.com.