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Of courtesans, wealthy patrons and a legendary 'green house' district

A GERMAN friend tipped me off to an inexpensive Beijing hostel in a former red-light district where the rooms are decorated like those in an old-time upscale bordello.

Makes sense. The neighborhood was famous from the late 14th century until early 20th century for its mostly high-class houses of pleasure and multi-talented courtesans. One even "married" a Chinese diplomat and traveled to Europe, returned to ply her trade and later became the mistress of a German general. Thus, she was able to save many Chinese lives from occupying foreign troops, it was said.

The area of Bada Hutong was full of enticing lore, though there's nothing left today of the sinful days.

There are a few hostels in Bada Hutong and they feature typically large beds with soft mattresses covered in bright red silk stitched with delicately sewn patterns of dragon and phoenix (man and woman, often used in weddings, still used today), flowers, fish and other auspicious symbols.

A one-bed room in such a hostel today costs from 50 yuan (US$7.60) to 380 yuan a night.

They're only hostels.

In the old days, visiting one of the famous pleasure palaces could cost a fortune.

These houses of pleasure were commonly called qing lou or green houses - qing meaning green and lou meaning house. The term was originally used to describe an elegant residence for a wealthy and cultured family. Since the Song Dynasty (960-1279), the term has been applied to upscale brothels.

Courtesans in these "green houses" were often the highest ranking in their profession and trained in singing, playing a musical instrument, dancing, calligraphy, poetry, painting and so on.

Some courtesans were well-regarded poets and their verse was included in official collections. In the prosperous Tang (618-907 AD) and Song dynasties, many of these women popularized poems and songs through their performances.

An old Chinese saying also calls green houses "gold-melting places" because they were so expensive. In novels about the old days, spending the night in a "green house" could cost the equivalent today of several thousand yuan. In those days it was the equivalent of years of a peasant family's income.

The area rose to fame in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), reaching its peak in the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). In the Republic of China period the area contained both brothels and housing for Peking Opera and other stage performers.

At that time, it usually cost five to six silver coins to spend the night while the minimum cost of living in Beijing was around two silver coins per month.

In their heyday, many exclusive brothels in Bada Hutong had their own rules, including insisting that customers visited on festivals and holidays. Otherwise, they might be refused the next time.

Beijing hutongs, like longtang (lane) in Shanghai, are narrow lanes typical of the capital, many dedicated to distinctive pursuits. Waijiao Hutong, for example, is a street of small eateries.

Bada Hutong literally means the eight big hutongs. Some people identify eight, but the term eight was also used in the old days to refer to a large number. Hence, there were much more than eight lanes and many houses of pleasure in Bada Hutong.

In the old days, when a man said he was going to Bada Hutong, that didn't signify a location as much as a way to spend the evening. And the houses were patronized by many court officials, businessmen, celebrities, public figures and cultured gentlemen.

Of course, there were sporting houses to suit smaller budgets.

As a backpacker and frequent visitor to the capital, I was embarrassed I didn't know more about the city's hostels. When I learned of the one (there are others) in Bada Hutong, I realized that I had never thought about tracing the history of this area although I know about it from many old novels and history books.

I asked eight friends, all Beijing natives, if they knew about such brothels-turned-hostels - none had heard of them.

And they gave me eight different answers about the location of Bada Hutong, though they all knew it used to a red-light district.

Tracking down a Beijing hutong can be very difficult since many have been demolished and many locals don't even know where the other ones are.

So I decided to do some research and track it down on my next trip to Beijing.

The most complete answer I found online lists the eight lanes of Bada Hutong as Shaanxi Xiang, Baishun Hutong, Shitou Hutong, Han Jia Tan, Wangguangfuxiejie Street (now called Zongshuxiejie Street), Yanzhi Hutong, Xiaolishamao Hutong (now called Xiaoli Hutong) and Pitiao Ying (now divided into Dongxi Biying Hutong).

Other Websites list other hutongs. I hadn't heard of any of them.

Fortunately, they are all in the same area, around Qianmen (literally front gate). This area near Qianmenwai Street was an ideal location for a red-light quarter, particularly in the Ming and Qing dynasties.

It was near the inner circle area where officials lived. It was near train stations, commercial and entertainment areas so it got a lot of foot traffic.

In old novels, many men enjoyed dinner and operas on Qianmenwai Street before heading to Bada Hutong to spend the rest of the night.

The area once contained more than 100 brothels of different sizes and qualities, catering to different tastes. According to an unofficial record from a 1930 book, 117 brothels were registered in Bada Hutong at that time.

After the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949, prostitution was officially abolished and brothels were closed.

An official magazine in 1950 said "244 prostitution houses were closed down in one night" right after 1949 in Bada Hutong.

I also found old and simple verses that described the characteristics, the offerings and clientele of each of the eight hutongs in the district. Some were home to legendary prostitutes. Some "guest lists" included emperors.

Sai Jinhua had always been the most famous and gossiped about in the late 19th century. Her birth name is nowhere to be found. Her professional name Sai Jinhua means "more than a golden flower," though the Anhui Province native, born in 1872, was not glamorous as expected, if we go by old photos.

At 15, a concubine, she won the heart of 48-year-old Hong Jun, who earned the highest score in the national examination to become an imperial official. She began her rise to fame and power when Hong was assigned on a diplomatic mission to Germany, Austria, Russia and Holland. The young concubine went along as Hong's "wife," since his real wife was afraid of foreigners.

Her real time came in 1900, long after Hong passed away and she returned to a house of pleasure in Shitou Hutong in Bada Hutong. Shitou Hutong was taken over by the German army at the time, and Sai shocked all the officers and soldiers with her fluent German and knowledge about senior officials and public figures in Germany.

The astonished soldiers told their general, Alfred von Waldersee, also in supreme command of the joint forces of eight European troops in China back then. Sai, then 28, was said to charm the general with her knowledge and beauty, helping save many Chinese lives.

In Bada Hutong, today's Neiwubu Street used to be called Goulan Hutong, gou meaning hooking and lan meaning walls. It meant "lured inside the walls" and goulan later became slang for brothels.

Most prostitutes in Bada Hutong belonged to the "South Class," referring to those from southern China and often indicating expensive talents such as calligraphy, singing, dancing and painting.

The "North Class" referred to those coming from north of the Yellow River who were thought to have "less education and culture" - so the prices were lower.

When I finally made my way to the area, it certainly doesn't look like a former red-light district. It looks like other old neighborhoods, with old walls, red doors, wooden window frames. It looks rather drab. Only a few of the oldest buildings remain.

Drying laundry flutters above some lanes. There are gaps where some buildings have been torn down to make way for new construction. Narrow lanes are filled with residents on old bicycles, some pedal three-wheel carts.

It's difficult to imagine the area as it was depicted in the old tales - bustling with enticing entertainment, bright lights, stylish people.

Among the eight hutongs, I've always been interested in Yanzhi Hutong. The word yanzhi originally meant a woman's makeup and often refers to beauties in old novels. Therefore, a place so named must have been the best, I thought.

Disappointingly, it's a tiny and narrow lane linking the area to the large avenue outside; it's even smaller than most narrow Beijing lanes. That makes sense though, as the celebrities and major figures who patronized the brothels probably didn't want to advertise their pastimes.

There must have been celebrity spotters and nosy folks back then, otherwise, how do we read and hear all those stories about famous people going to Bada Hutong?

Yanzhi Hutong, once famed for its high-class brothels, is just a regular residential area today. Shi Hua Guan, the place identified in numerous old novels as the No. 1 house of pleasure, takes up almost half of the lane. The building connects Yanzhi Hutong to Baishun Hutong and part of it is now the office of the neighborhood community.

Baishun Hutong is the newest, cleanest and largest one today. Bai means a hundred and shun means smooth, so the hutong's name implies a hundred successes - an idea that certainly appealed to patrons.

The lane is wider and straighter than most old lanes. Unlike other hutongs, it does not intersect with any lane, except Yanzhi Hutong.

Neat, orderly houses line the lane. Two new-looking Western-style buildings stand out in contrast.

Many old people sit outside enjoying a laid-back afternoon. Unlike houses in other nearby lanes, most of these houses were rebuilt or renovated after the 1970s, so they are not very interesting.

I find only three old houses in the lane, all residences. The one near the west end is run down and the one next to it bears a fading pentagram above the door - signifying the five ancient elements, wood, water, wind, fire and metal.

Well, so long, memory lane, green houses, hundred successes, gold-melting places and extraordinary golden flowers.


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