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Heritage Trail project

Beixinqiao Santiao of the Past

Beixinqiao Santiao is the longest and the straightest hutong (alleyway) in our district, beginning in the west at Lama Temple Boulevard, and ending in the east at Dongzhimen North Street. The architecture and function of the eastern part, central part and western part of the hutong are very different. The east consists mostly of governmental bureaus. One of the biggest buildings in terms of land coverage is the Traveler Inn Huaqiao Hotel designed by Mr. Liang Sicheng in the 1950s. The westernmost end of the hutong constitutes government bureaus, while the siheyuans (traditional courtyard houses) cluster around the central-west part.

The central part of Beixinqiao Santiao is always bustling, especially around meal times. Many hutongs converge here; hence the many shops in this area, such as vegetable and fruit stores, barber shops, laundries, and restaurants.

There are a couple of well-preserved siheyuans in this hutong. While inspecting one, we discovered a lead that brought us to another siheyuan, where its architecture and former residents greatly spurred our interest.

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Beixinqiao Santiao of the Past

On maps from the Ming and Qing dynasties, Beixinqiao Santiao was called Wangdaren hutong or hutong of Magistrate Wang. It was still referred to as hutong of Magistrate Wang in 1947, but changed to its current name in 1965 with the merger with Baxian Alley.

It is said that the “Magistrate Wang” refers to the Ming eunuch Wang Cheng’en. Since very little is known about this man, this fact is unconfirmed. We do, however, know that in the 17th year of Emperor Chongzhen’s reign (1644), when the peasant rebel Li Zicheng held Beijing under siege, Chongzhen attempted to gather all his generals and ministers, but could find no one except eunuch Wang Cheng’en, who remained by the Emperor’s side. In the morning of March 19, Wang Cheng’en and the emperor hung themselves on a locust tree on the present-day Jingshan Hill.

Mr. Li Dongsheng is a witness of the transformations of this hutong over recent decades. He has lived in the adjacent Qianyongkang Sanxiang hutong since his birth in the 1940s. According to him, the easternmost end of the hutong was once the residential compound of Wang Cheng’en. In addition to this compound, there was also a huge garden referred to by the locals as the Second Compound, where Mr. Li often played during his childhood. After the Liberation in 1949, the compounds were inhabited by a general, who paid the children no attention and continued to allow them into the Second Compound. Mr. Li. recalls, “When we were kids, we could go in as we pleased. One of the main gates was always wide open. Once inside, there were a couple of small houses overlooking this piece of land. They (the general) would pay us no attention; children could go in and play. On the rear end of Houyongkang hutong, the walls had collapsed. From there you can jump over the walls. When you went in there to play, it was all wooded, with primarily locust trees.”

According to Mr. Li, the Traveler Inn Huaqiao Hotel also belonged to Wang Cheng’en’s compounds. Originally a dairy farm, it was converted into a hotel after bankruptcy. Mr. Li recalls the area as quite undeveloped in his childhood, “Over there was the Dongzhimen Gate. In this area near the northern city wall was where they used to execute people… Soon after the Liberation they also shot people here… especially the Nationalist spies. Later they moved the execution grounds to Tucheng, and later the Marco Polo Bridge.”

Mr. Li recalls Beixinqiao Santiao as being rather lively compared to the area further up north by the city wall. “When I used to climb up the city wall as a kid, both Dongzhimen Gate and Andingmen Gate had paths for horses, following the paths you could climb up the city walls. There weren’t as many people then; children were all afraid to go, they would only play on top of the city walls, and were too scared to venture further… We were afraid to even go to Dongzhimen Gate and Andingmen Gate. Even in our teens, we would only venture a hundred meters or so before running back.”

The Five-Generation Household

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On the outset, our research focused on a well-preserved siheyuan in the western area of the hutong. This siheyuan is composed of at least two courtyards, and original architectural arrangement had also been preserved. According to local residents, the original address for this siheyuan was once Number 29, Wang Daren hutong. Documents in the Beijing city archives indicate that the primary titleholder of this address between 1938 and 1943 was Guo Pinqing. The property changed hands twice hereafter, and it has been difficult to uncover any other information about this siheyuan.

On the other hand, the September 1947 Household Survey by the Inner Three Precinct of the Peking Police) indicated that in 1946, Mr. Guo lived at Number 11 of the same street. A total of 26 people resided at Number 11 with Mr. Guo as head of household, including servants and maids.  This large household in which five generations of the Guo family lived in was the largest on the street, headed by its patriarch, who was a businessman, and like most of the other residents of the street, a Buddhist. However, not all families on this street owned their own property as Mr. Guo’s did. In fact, most of the residents were manual laborers and renting was not uncommon.

The survey also shows that Mr. Guo had two sons, as the names of his daughters-in-law were both registered in the archive; strangely, the names of his sons were not recorded.  Additionally, the survey also indicates that Mr. Guo had two grandsons who graduated from Fu Ren University and Peking University; one became a schoolteacher and the other was employed at a bank. The compound at Number 11 at that time occupied an area encompassing four present-day street addresses on the two streets in the area. There was also a very strange building in one of the courtyards whose nature has puzzled us for a long time.

Although two-story buildings were not uncommon among siheyuans in Beijing, buildings like the old-fashioned one-and-a-half story, square, flat-roofed one at Number 11 were exceedingly rare, possibly even unique. If it wasn’t for the fact that we were already familiar with Mr. Li, it might have been very difficult for us to guess the original purpose of the building.

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In the 1940s when Mr. Li was still a young boy, he was not familiar with Mr. Guo’s children. However, he was quite friendly with the cook in Mr. Guo’s household. “Because I was very young at the time and I was on very good terms with the cook in Mr. Guo’s household. At that time, he must have been at least fifty years old. Because our family was in straitened circumstances at the time, sometimes the cook would steal a bun and give it to me.”

Mr. Li said that at that time, everybody referred to one of the members of Mr. Guo’s household as “Chief Supervisor Guo” because he was chief supervisor at the Beijing Paoju Prison. Judging by age, this fifty-to-sixty-year-old “Chief Supervisor Guo” was probably a son of Mr. Guo Pinqing.  In fact, the reason why such a strange building existed in the Guo household was because of the profession of Chief Supervisor’s wife, “his wife – her name was Wang Yuhua I think – was an opera singer, and the reason why that building was built there was so his wife could rehearse and act there. According to Mr. Li, Wang Yuhua was quite famous in the 1930s and 40s. He added, “Because of all that, they built a large building, so she could rehearse inside. Wang Yuhua practiced there and in the courtyard in the back. In the northwest corner, the area was set up for her to practice theatrical poses. There were mirrors all around to let her strike different poses inside.”  In other words, aside from this “large building” there were also other rooms in the courtyard for Wang Yuhua to use for rehearsing.

The courtyard of the “large building” is not a typical siheyuan. It is linked to Number 11’s courtyard via a corridor. Even though the corridor no longer exists, Mr. Li and his wife recall this corridor to be beautiful, with its walls decorated with delicate blue-patterned porcelain tiles.

According to Mr. Li, around 1947, the Communist Party came to capture Chief Supervisor Guo and from then on, no one has ever heard from him again.  “At that time, we remembered the whole hutong was barricaded. As a child I felt curious, so I peered at through the door; as soon as I looked in, I would be told to leave.  That was it; that was just it… Old folks said it was the Communists who captured them, and then we never heard about them again, so we didn’t know if it was the Communists or whoever else, anyway, they were gone. It wasn’t clear who did it and whether he was caught or not. No one lived in the house thereafter.” This perhaps explains the missing records of the Guo’s sons in the 1947 Household Survey.

Mr Li recounted that just after Liberation, he still played in the Guo family house; at that time the house was unoccupied and unmanaged, but the tables and furniture were still there. In the big rehearsal hall there was only a tea table left.

Afterword

The front gate of the former 11 Wang Daren hutong is rather eye-catching, not only because of the grandeur of the structure, but also because there were always people sitting on and around the steps. Most of them were not from the courtyard or even the hutong. These steps, however, were the best place for them to chat, relax, and shop. We also collected oral history of the Coal Shop from here. Regardless of whether this was once the Guo family’s compounds, whether a famous Chinese opera singer once performed here, and whether its architecture was designed with a most unusual purpose — for the people who have come to gather in this courtyard for the charm of this doorway that has attracted the community members, we consider this an important stop in our Cultural Trail.

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