Qiánmén (前门, “the front gate”), stands at the south end of Tiananmen Square. It was formerly the front gate of the Imperial City and it symbolized Beijing’s grandeur. Not surprisingly, Qiánmén is one of the most central district of Beijing. No matter what you look for, you will find it there, either in one of the busy hútòng or on Qiánmén street itself: Beijing Duck at Quanjude, shoes at Neiliansheng, silk at Ruifuxiang… these century-old establishments were purveyors to the Imperial Court and still exist today. You are in the heart of the historical Beijing.
Qiánmén is also famous for its labyrinth of ancient passageways and alleys, formed by lines of traditional courtyard residences, plentiful around historical districts: the hútòng. But since 1949, many of the old hútòng started being replaced by the high rises and wide boulevards of today’s Beijing. As the city was getting a facelift for the 2008 Olympics, many more hútòng were demolished, and people began to mourn the loss of Beijing’s cultural heritage.
Yet, many romanticize the way of life of the old hútòng. Hundreds of residents sharing one toilet, no heating system (or a pretty bad one), no private bath or shower (communal baths were still the norm in Beijing just twenty years ago!) and entire families packed under one roof, in a single room, 四世同堂(Four Generations under One Roof). Life was tough… yet a sense of community was lost when Beijing started developing.
But Qiánmén still offers a glimpse of old Beijing and there is a lot to see.