Gulou: The heart of old Beijing still beats

Gulou: The heart of old Beijing still beats

The neighborhood around the Drum and Bell Towers, which for centuries kept time in the capital, flows with life, despite being left behind by the rest of the city

Around the centuries-old Drum and Bell towers, rickshaw drivers ferry tourists past hidden courtyard homes, fruit shops, kebab stands and trendy cafes and bars. Old folks in red “security volunteer” armbands monitor the goings on. A group of men take lunch over stiff glasses of baijiu (white liquor), while a woman hauling a squeaky cart calls out for recycling. 

This narrow warren of hutong alleyways called Gulou, a charming 12.94 hectares in the middle of the Chinese capital, is one of Beijing’s most endearing neighborhoods, offering a glimpse into the city’s fading past. 

Gulou isn’t without problems. Many of the neighborhood’s courtyard homes are without adequate plumbing and heating. For many residents, a visit to the bathroom means bundling up and strolling down to the nearest public toilet. Valuable property prices also prompt talk of redevelopment, such as the recently scrapped “Beijing Time Cultural City.” 

For preservationists, however, Gulou is the heart of Old Beijing, part of a past that has been largely set aside during the country’s rapid development. Roughly 80 percent of Beijing’s hutongs have met with the wrecking ball in recent years.

“Beijing can be transformed into New York in five decades, but it would take New York 5,000 years to become a city like Beijing,” says Zhang Wei, founder of As He Shuzhong, founder of the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center, puts it: “Gulou is precious.” 

The bell tower

Gulou Bell towerThe bell tower (pictured) and neighboring drum tower kept the city’s time during the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties.

Noodle shop

Noodle shop on Gulou Dong DajieA popular noodle shop on Gulou Dong Dajie. Noodle shop on Gulou Dong DajieA cook prepares noodles on Gulou Dong Dajie.

Public toilets

Gulou public toilet Many homes in Gulou don’t have adequate plumbing, requiring residents to make the trip to a public toilet like this one.

Posing by beer

Yangjing Beer.Life in Gulou occurs on the street. Here, a man passes by crates of Yangjing Beer.

Snack time

chaun’rA Muslim boy cooking one of Beijing’s favorite snacks, chaun’r -– skewers of roasted lamb.

Old school

Woman on bike in hutong alleywayCarting recycled goods down a centuries-old hutong alleyway.

Time for a nap

Chinese sleepCatching some z's.

Brisk business

Gulou rickshawOne of Boss Liu’s rickshaw drivers takes his lunch break. Business is brisk these days for Boss Liu, but he worries about the neighborhood’s future. “If Gulou is demolished, Old Beijing will disappear.”

Tiny housing

Gulou narrow passagewayScenes in the narrow passageway outside Chen Yi’s home. Chen, 64, lives in a tiny apartment with no central heating or toilet. “I’m not happy here,” says Chen. “For old people –- we’re too weak.” Gulou narrow passagewayNarrow passageway outside Chen Yi’s home.

Renovations underway

Gulou renovationMany old courtyard homes have been renovated to make way for modern apartments or offices.

Mitch Moxley is a journalist based in Beijing. He's written for publications including Time, The Globe and Mail, Foreign Policy and The Guardian from China, Mongolia, Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines.

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