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Heritage Trail project

Hui Lou (Gray Building)

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Hui Lou, a gray brick apartment building with green verandas and wooden floral carvings, is located in Houyongkang Second Lane. The lane was named Bianshao hutong during the Republican period and was later changed to Houyongkang Second Lane during the Cultural Revolution. Hui Lou is the only apartment building on our Cultural Trail and when it was built in 1956, it was considered very good housing.

An elderly woman, whom we shall call “Auntie” recalled, “Back then, when my colleagues visited, they all said, ‘Wow! Your house is so great. You are so lucky.”  She currently is the only resident who has lived in Hui Lou since it opened to residents in 1957.

Residential Buildings of Soviet Design

hl2Hui Lou was built in the style of the apartment buildings of the Soviet Union. It has three stories, a pitched roof, and skylights. In the 1950s, the Soviet Union sent specialists to assist with Beijing’s urban planning.  Consequently, some of the architecture in Beijing from the 1950s has the characteristics of the Soviet architecture of that era.

If you have ever visited Shenyang, you might be familiar with this kind of apartment building. In Shenyang, especially in the Workers’ Village in Tiexi District, this type of apartment building is very common. In Beijing’s previous factory district—Chaoyang District—this kind of building was much more common than in Dongcheng District, which is part of the old town. In the area to the southeast of the Lama Temple there are only two of them. Because there were so few of them, before the Cultural Revolution, Hui Lou was not even given a street number.  It was simply called “the gray building in Bianshao hutong,” a fact that did not affect the residents receiving their mail.  Even today many people living in the neighborhood still call it Hui Lou.

Before she retired, Auntie worked at a state owned textile factory in Chaoyang District. She said that the Soviet Union style dorms in her factory were different from Hui Lou. “Those dorms in our factory were different from here…They had shared bathrooms and kitchens. There was only one kitchen and one bathroom on each floor. People who lived there were young people without children. Those rooms were 8, 9, or 12 square meters large.” But Hui Lou is different. Each of its apartments has its own kitchen, bathroom, and an eastern facing balcony.

Hui Lou’s gates face west. The bottom story looks rather different from when it was first built. For anti-theft purpose, those who lived on the bottom floor blocked the space between the balconies and turned them into small rooms. But because of the uniformity of the exterior, people who do not know this may think the small rooms are original parts of the building.

Apartment Buildings in Hutongs

hl3Auntie recalls that the area by the city wall was rather poor after the liberation. Among the residents living here, many were rickshaw boys. When she moved in to Hui Lou, the city wall, city gates, and moat still existed.  “Next to the moat was the big city gate. Beyond the moat was farm land. … You could see people pushing rollers…. It was all farm land over there. Today, you cannot even see farm land beyond the fifth and sixth ring roads.”

According to Auntie, most of the residents in the area are not native to Beijing. “[The term] native makes no sense. Many of us came from the country after the liberation. There were very few natives here. Even those people [who call themselves native] may come from another town.  They owned a house here, and then became native. We cannot know for certain. You may regard people at my age as native. However, we are not exactly. In fact, I moved here at the age of 16 or 17, 16 to be precise.”

Auntie said that in the 1950s, you could see very far into the distance from Hui Lou. You could see Dongzhimen City Gate to the east and to the west you could see a large number of single-storied houses. At the time, the population was small and there was a vacant lot downstairs from Hui Lou. Auntie said that her apartment was allotted to her husband’s work unit. After moving into Hui Lou, many acquaintances admired her because most people back at the time lived in single-storied houses.

According to Auntie, nothing dramatic happened to Hui Lou during the Cultural Revolution. The walls were not painted with Chairman Mao’s quotes and residents living in it were not affected much. She remembers that during the Cultural Revolution, a naughty kid crawled into the attic between the top floor and the roof and almost broke the ceiling of Auntie’s apartment.

While most people living in hutongs still have to use public toilets, residents in Hui Lou have enjoyed flushed toilets since the 1950s. As a testament to its quality construction, Hui Lou survived the big earthquake in 1976.  However, although it was well built, Hui Lou still lacks many of the conveniences of modern apartment buildings.  Residents in Hui Lou still have to use bottled gas for cooking and coal for heat. In other words, there is no public gas or heating facilities in Hui Lou. Therefore the small coal sheds by the building are indispensable. However a few families, especially those who live on the third floor, have their coal in the hallway for convenience. It reminds us that during the days when people in Beijing still had to store cabbage for the winter, there must have been bundles of cabbage in the hallways as well.

There are three gates in Hui Lou. The stairs are right inside the gates with one apartment on each side, altogether there are eighteen apartments in the entire building.  Auntie’s apartment has two bedrooms and no living room and has 63 square meters of floor space.  One characteristic of the old fashioned residential buildings in Beijing is that the living room is very small or non-existent, entirely different from the large living room design of Beijing’s post-1990s housing. The color of Auntie’s door is pea green and she tells us it is the same pattern as fifty years ago.

Afterword

hl4Auntie agrees that the living condition in Hui Lou is not as good as those newly built apartment buildings.  She says, “A seventy-year old and a 20-year-old are very different. Everything is old.” She also thinks the kids living in the neighborhood downstairs are too noisy and there is no community park for her to walk around in. But she doesn’t want Hui Lou to be demolished. She doesn’t want to leave those old ladies she always chats with downstairs. And she doesn’t want her grandson to travel far to school.

On the issue of demolition, she has the same attitude as the elders in hutongs. Having a tender spot for the past in your heart is the same no matter whether you live in a 1950s Soviet designed apartment or a courtyard, as long as you live in the hutongs.

“I don’t care what will happen after my death, but I definitely do not want it to be demolished now.”

Oral history collecting: Yu Meng
Transcription: Zhang Pei
Text: Yu Meng
Photo Deng Wei, Yu Meng
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