Thursday, March 02, 2006

Of Hutongs And Chawls ....
Hutong Karma was the title of Peter Hessler’s letter from China that appeared in the Feb 13th – 20th, 2006 issue of the New Yorker magazine. Unfortunately it cannot be found online ( and trying to paraphrase the article truly does no justice to Hessler’s beautiful writing. (The images above look different but they both reflect a similar milieu that exists worlds apart)
The term Hutong is derived from the Mongolian word that in Chinese means alley (The author lives in a building that is close to or part of the Hutong in Beijing). The homes around the alley are single story brick, but what distinguishes them the most according to Peter are the connections and movements amongst the residents. Peter says – “Dozens of households might share a single entrance and maybe the individual homes may have running water. A few people may have private bathrooms, so public toilets play a major role in local life. In a hutong much is communal including the alley itself. The alleys are small so vendors pass thru regularly. “ The author goes on to describe how the sounds of the alley are so different than that of the city which it is a part of. He describes how he has learnt to distinguish the cadence and the rhythms of each vendor as they come thru the alley plying their wares. He talks about the freelance recyclers, who would pay for anything that you wanted to throw away (including human hair, it apparently goes in to making wigs here in the US). He goes on to talk about communal barbecues and also attempted matchmaking,
The author also dwells on how the hutongs are being transformed by the manic modernization of Beijing and China (not to mention the upcoming Olympics contributing to Beijing trying to make itself look like an Olympic host). The modernization begins with the building of new automated toilets and then moves to how hutongs are slowly being pulled down to be replaced by more modern structures.
This got me thinking about the similarities and differences between hutong like neighborhoods from a part of the world that I grew up in, which is Bombay. There are countless alleys or neighborhoods in Bombay, but the one that came to my mind were “chawls” (a chawl which in Mumbai means Room only and bathroom and WC outside). These are similar in many ways to but yet different from Hutongs. They may be multi-storeyed buildings, but they were more like mini worlds within themselves like Hutongs. They may have similar common entrances, apartments very close to one another, common toilets and very little in terms of privacy (esp. compared to the western concept of privacy as applied to being in and around ones living space). Pretty much everyone knows everyone else including about some of their private and personal matters,
Chawls were built mostly during the 50s or even earlier. These buildings are now getting older and appear to approach the end of their life they are being replaced by skyscrapers. A lot of these chawls were in neighborhoods that were right next to textile mills which were once huge in Bombay. But that changed following the textile mills strike in the 1980s which decimated the industry and along with that the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in these chawls, a lot of whom worked in these mills. The mills closed down never to come back to life as controversy raged and continues to do so over the land. The mill owners wanted to sell it off. A lot of the workers felt that they should be compensated for their loss of jobs from the land proceeds. The last I heard about it, the owners had managed to sell of the land for some of the mills (prime real estate in Bombay is extremely expensive even by Western standards). There are now high rises and swanky night clubs instead populated by the rich, the young and the hip who most likely are unaware of the tumultuous events that led to the rise of these impersonal edifices that stand on these lands.
Hutongs and chawls., located in different worlds so far apart yet connected in many ways, both affected by change that may leave them as mere memories of a past era.

1 comment:

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