Neighborhood Watch: Gulou

Amid the rush of Beijing, a district’s old-world charms attract a dynamic creative class.
Neighborhood Watch: Gulou

Photography: Elizabeth Phung

You could call Beijing electric, you could call it outlandish, but very few people would call the place charming. It’s too busy, too noisy—a vast metropolis with 21 million-plus people and a seemingly insatiable appetite to modernize and monetize every aspect of life. But then you get to the Drum Tower district, and you see an entirely different side.

Unlike Beijing as a whole, Drum Tower—or Gulou (goo-LOW), as locals know it—has kept its small-scale, old-world appeal. A spiderweb of narrow, dusty alleys (hutongs), the neighborhood hums with life: aunties bickering with lapdogs; chain-smoking men fretting over chessboards; cabbage peddlers and duck butchers hawking their wares. At the same time, Gulou is the best place in the city to feel its deep, slow heartbeat—a way of life that moves to ancient rhythms.

Named after the 13th-century tower that stands at its approximate center—one of two, along with the nearby Zhonglou, that once dominated the city skyline—Gulou has historically acted as Beijing’s timekeeper (men would beat drums in the tower to mark the imperial hours). Today it is home to the city’s largest uninterrupted block of traditional courtyard homes, and also some of its edgiest bohemian culture. Though often compared to Brooklyn, Gulou’s spirit is more heavy metal than hipster, more like Detroit or Berlin in its ramshackle appeal to a certain class of creatives.

It’s an easy place to get lost—in terms of time as well as space. “These last two years, I’ve basically never left these two blocks,” says Minnesotan transplant Ahti Westphal, gesturing at a stretch of hutong that staggers out toward Dongzhimen, the city’s old east gate. “This is what makes Beijing special,” he says. “There’s always the possibility that you will turn a corner and come across something crazy that you never knew was there, and you’re shocked it’s even possible.”

He’s right. On the walk over to meet Westphal, I stopped for a coffee at Waiting for Godot, a graffiti-splattered café where an Italian acrobat was entertaining his companion by pretending to climb an invisible ladder. On the street outside, a man sold walnuts from a velvet briefcase, while another did one-armed pushups next to a toddler, saying: “Come on, you can do it!”

A designer and architect, Westphal lives in a walled siheyuan (courtyard) and co-owns Atlas studio, a firm that specializes in fusing Chinese craftsmanship with contemporary design. Today, watched by a pale-eyed husky named Luna, he’s tweaking plans for a log tower he and his partners are building in a remote Guizhou village. He picks up a pillow, designed by Atlas and woven by local craftspeople, upholstered in shimmering black-blue fabric: “It’s indigo,” he says, “mixed with pig’s blood and egg yolk.” He smiles at my grimace and adds, “That’s how it gets this gloss.”

Having said goodbye to Westphal and his glossy pillow, I head north on Yonghegong Street, which bustles with pilgrims, sightseers and at least two poodles wearing socks. Buddhist paraphernalia shops sell shrink-wrapped gold bodhisattvas and incense sticks. Outside the Spiritual Light Metaphysical Shop, men play cards at a folding table. The air has a sandalwood scent, but the atmosphere is hardly peaceful: Recorded Buddhist chants clash with amplified police warnings to avoid tricksters. At the end of it all is Yonghegong Temple, a thrumming complex of smoke-wreathed shrines, where students in track suits light incense sticks to pray for good grades.

I turn down nearby Guozijian, a willow-shaded street named after the old imperial academy, whose enterprises run from fortune tellers to high-end boutiques. A woman in high boots and an earth-tone tunic steps out of a Mercedes and into a shop selling tiny teapots. A tour group from the countryside watches through the window. “Look at that!” A man points at a price tag on a small tea kettle (the equivalent of $600). “Look!”

A few doors down at Lost & Found, the wares are more varied. One customer strokes the leather of a buttery Danish sofa, while another contemplates a lovely old Chinese typewriter. In the nearby fashion retailer Paint by Dongliang, I pick up a graffiti-covered parka, but a glance in the mirror (khakis, Oxford shirt) reminds me how far I stand from the frontline of fashion. I quietly move on.

From here, it’s a short walk to what could be called hutong hipster central: Wudaoying. Around five years ago, this quaint alley began to attract creative colonizers, sprouting an underground rock club, a fixie bike shop and a vegan resto. Now it’s well on its way to full-blown gentrification, with jewelry boutiques edging out cat cafés. A pompadoured guy on a hoverboard zips by bellowing into his phone. “Careful,” mutters a squatting young woman attempting to take a selfie with an indifferent cat.

Just off Wudaoying, on the Jiancheng (“Arrow Factory”) hutong, the vibe is more somber. Recently, this alley has been subject to a strenuous government campaign to “beautify” Beijing. The word has an Orwellian irony, as “beautification” denotes a distinctly ugly process: All alley-facing windows and doorways have been crudely filled with brick. While the process is intended to restore the original look of the hutongs, it has killed off many restaurants and stores.

The so-called “Bricking” has put locals on edge. Over the summer, one of the area’s best nightlife alleys, Fangjia, was practically wiped out overnight. One of the few businesses on the hutong to survive was Peiping Machine Brewing, and tonight the place is mobbed with youngsters downing brews like Sichuan peppercorn-infused ale. On the stoop outside, tattooed toughs in slippers and leopard-print shorts chain-smoke cigarettes. The bar has a gritty, industrial-chic feel to it, but it’s pure Beijing.

It’s been a roundabout journey for Li Wei, one of the brewpub’s co-owners. A Beijing native, he grew up resenting the hutong lifestyle—all thin walls, aromatic bathrooms and nosy neighbors. But after achieving success as a lantern-jawed anchorman on national TV, he set out to explore the world, and came home with a different perspective. “I lived in the hutong for 21 years using public toilets and showers and wanted nothing but to get out,” he tells me over a honey-colored IPA. “Then I went overseas and I realized every city has a special place, where you can feel its soul. That’s what Gulou is to Beijing. Only after growing up did I realize that this is Beijing’s best place.”

Li and his partners opened their taproom last year in a restored 1940s redbrick factory, a project that was guided by an ethos more than a business plan. “We’re a Beijing brewery, so our signature dishes are local: jianbing [crispy crepe] and chuanr [meat skewers]. Most bars make a lot of money on French fries. If this was just about the money, I would sell them. But I don’t.”

Li’s attitude is classic Gulou, where passion and stubborn persistence routinely trump the bottom line: The Tiki Bungalow bar is on its third location after the first two closed due to fire and grumpy neighbors. Julia Hofmann and Zhang Lin, owners of iconic café Zarah, recently faced a potentially crippling rent hike at their location near the Drum Tower, and responded by undertaking a top-to-toe renovation.

“When we found this place, it was a nail salon, all pink,” says Hofmann affectionately. They’ve made Zarah attractively austere, suitably Sino-Germanic in its sleek lines and heavy beams, with a clientele of artists and writers and DJs playing on the weekend. Tonight, a mohawked man in plaid shorts paces the inner courtyard, mandolin case under one arm, sparking a cigarette with his thumb. The café’s appeal also extends to Beijing’s wealthy set, giving it a cross-cultural cachet.

It’s a similar story at my next stop, Susu, a Vietnamese restaurant and Gulou bastion wedged deep in a labyrinthine nook to the south. It takes me two wrong turns before I finally find the door. Owner Amy Li is waiting at the bar with a knowing smile. “Got lost?" We take a table by the wall. “As a Chinese person, I wasn’t so interested in living here,” Li says, recalling her American husband Jonathan’s attraction to Gulou. “I told him, it’s all mosquitoes, cold, bad plumbing. But Jonathan was charmed. For foreigners, it’s a dream life here.”

A waitress brings rice-wrapped shrimp with ginger fish sauce and a salad of tangy lotus root, chili and pork shavings. A moment later, she returns with beef Bánh mi and lemon soda. “The beauty of the hutong is that they don’t change,” Li continues. “You can see the leaves changing, the pomegranates growing plump on the trees. We love it. We like to think we’ve contributed to it.”

The continuity and resilience Li describes is rare in Beijing, and, mercifully, there is at least some official appreciation of this fact. In 2005, during a frenzy of redevelopment that saw swaths of the city torn down, the local government declared much of the hutong protected in its Beijing City Master Plan—the same impulse that has led to the ill-conceived “beautification” program.

But, again, local entrepreneurs have forged their own methods of preservation. When the cocktail bar Fang was bricked up this summer, the owners simply reopened in a different hutong. “This is what you have to understand when you live here,” says co-owner Zak Elmasri, a native of Manchester, England. “Everywhere there are the scars and the wounds of the passage of time.”

A new phase of reinvention is underway, this one driven by innovative design. Tonight, Westphal has invited me to the fashionable Orchid hotel, where he is helping with an ambitious renovation. Joel Shuchat, the hotel’s Canadian co-owner, takes us to the rooftop terrace, which commands a view of the neighborhood’s low-slung topography, from which the Drum Tower juts like a giant lantern. I sip a passion fruit soda float as they discuss the possibility of a retracting roof.

For Westphal, it’s the “tension between things” in Gulou—its ancient soul and hipster bite, the push-pull of preservation and progress—that keeps life interesting. “You have this yin and yang in every condition,” he says. “As architects and designers, you want to control everything—but here you can’t control anything.”

The setting sun casts a pink shadow over the hutong. On an adjacent rooftop, a man in a red shirt sweeps around his pigeon cages, observed by two young women at a nearby table. “I love watching him,” says one. “He talks to the birds.”

“What does he say?”

“I don’t know.”

We all watch as the man finishes sweeping and approaches the cages, hoping to hear the secret command that stops the birds from flying away, that inspires them to wheel above the rooftops in widening circles, but to always make their way home. In the end, the man doesn’t say a word, which is a bit of a disappointment until I figure out why: He doesn’t have to.

A quick primer on Gulou’s lively music scene.

While drums and bells have sounded over Gulou for centuries, the last decade has seen more boisterous sounds enter the mix. On any given weekend, wailing guitars and scratching turntables can be heard overflowing into the hutong from the area’s many clubs. This is Beijing’s best neighborhood to experience the city’s seething live music scene. For punk and indie types, there’s School Bar on Wudaoying. Bigger acts play Yugong Yishan, which is renowned for its eclectic billings, from Celtic harp to Chinese noise rock. For raffish charm, there’s Gulou bastion Temple Bar, which fills up on weekends with hipsters and metalheads. For a mellower feel, try DDC (Dusk Dawn Club), where you can join the locals quaffing scotch to the sounds of folk or jazz.

Local eats
Three not-so-quiet meals in Gulou.

Wanza Noodles
Pang Mei

Originally from the chili capital of Chongqing, Pang Mei Mian Zhuang (“Fat Sister’s Noodle House”) is the spice-lover’s choice, renowned for steaming bowls of wanza mian, or noodles heaped with savory ground pork, scallions and steamed yellow peas. Stick with the wei la (least spicy) or prepare to sizzle your taste buds.

Kung Pao Chicken
Zhang Mama

Get your lips buzzing on Sichuan peppercorns at this raucous two-story joint. Cheap, fun and permanently packed, you’ll be dueling chopsticks with fellow diners over the dan dan noodles and gong bao ji ding (kung pao chicken), which is stuffed with crisp chili peanuts and sweet fiery meat.

Fried Goat Cheese
Aimo Town

A delicacy in minority villages of mountainous Yunnan province, rubing (goat cheese) comes sliced thin, pan-fried to a crisp and served with chili salt. Try it with mint salad and shredded potato pancakes while dining under a mounted yak skull in this colorful, homey restaurant.

Bed stars
Hotels that offer a stylish spin on hutong living.

The Orchid

The grande dame of hutong boutiques boasts unique terrace rooms and a popular mezze-and-tapas restaurant with shakshuka and lamb kofte.

Ji House

A quiet, well-hidden courtyard hotel oozing intimate charm, Ji is perfect for the traveler seeking immersion in the life of the hutong.

Grand Mercure

This upscale 184-room French-owned hotel offers boutique-chic décor — and bathtubs —along with a convenient location.