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Houhai Area

Beijing Culture: Life Round the Lake

Houhai Lake | Mei Lanfang Museum | Ya'er Hutong | Nanluoguxiang

A Tour of Houhai

Lowell Bennett


Drum Tower, Beijing.

Beijing's Houhai area is popular with locals, Western expats and tourists from around the globe. They come for the distinctive shopping, dining, clubbing, boating and winter ice-skating.

While expats and locals alike commonly refer to the entire neighborhood as "Houhai" (pronounced "ho-hi"), the festive action actually encircles three interconnecting lakes: Houhai ("Rear Sea"), Qianhai ("Front Sea") and Xihai ("West Sea").

Overlooking these tranquil waters and the fringe of willow trees are a wide range of well-frequented bars, cafes and restaurants, and lining the intricate network of ancient hutongs (alleys) nearby are residences of an earlier era, unique ethnic shops, traditional teahouses, and hole-in-the-wall caf and cocktail lounges.

Bai Ta, Beihai Park, Beijing.

Houhai Hotspots

Houhai Lake

Centuries ago, Houhai Lake was the final stop along the Grand Canal, the historic waterway upon which cargo, soldiers and officials were ferried into the imperial city of Peking from all over China. Now, Houhai Lake and environs serve as a leisurely oasis in this fast-paced capital.

Beihai Park

Originally the site of a royal palace during the Liao Dynasty (9071125), and renovated as an imperial playground for Kublai Khan in the 13th century, Beihai Park begins just south of Qianhai Lake and extends to the battlements of the Forbidden City.

This lovely area centers on Beihai Lake and the landmark Bai Ta (White Pagoda), and here you can stroll along the treelined waterfront past gardens, imposing imperial architecture and elegant stone sculptures.

The Bell & Drum Towers

A short stroll from the shore of Houhai Lake are the Bell and Drum Towers, each more than 45 meters in height. These served as official timekeeping installations during the Ming, Yuan and Qing dynasties (1271 1911). The structures were originally known as the Towers of Qi Zheng (meaning "orderly administration").

Ya'er Hutong

Just a few steps north of the Silver Ingot Bridge, where the Houhai and Qianhai lakes meet, is the exotic scene that is Ya'er Hutong. Within this network of alleys are authentic ethnic arts and crafts, ancient architecture, reminders of past political eras, friendly streetside vendors, unusual caf, and half-hidden bars. It all comes together in a concentrated blast of local color and energy quite unlike any urban setting in the Western world.

Entrance to Lotus Lane, Beijing, China. Prince Gong's Mansion, Beijing.

Prince Gong's Mansion

Constructed in the late 1700s, the former home of Prince Gong is one of the most carefully preserved examples of Qing Dynasty (16441911) architecture in all of China. Here is a glimpse of the past, and of an imperial era's privileged class.

The mansion was originally the home of He Shen, a young, handsome and purportedly very wise officer of the Imperial Guard assigned to Emperor Qianlong, who reigned from the mid-1730s to the mid-1790s.

Mei Lanfang Museum

South-west of Houhai is the traditional courtyard residence of former Beijing Opera star Mei Lanfang (1894-1961), which has now been turned into a museum. The renowned singer, actor and dancer was a prominent figure in Chinese theatre, and was the first artist to popularize Beijing Opera overseas. Traveling to the US, Europe and Japan, Mei Lanfang met such Hollywood luminaries as Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford.

Nowadays the museum has a peaceful atmosphere and is worth a visit for those interested in Beijing's traditional architectural styles and way of life, as well as Beijing Opera. The museum houses Mei Lanfang's biography and traditional Chinese Opera costumes are on display. There is also an audiovisual presentation showing Chinese Opera scenes featuring Mei Lanfang, and his sizeable painting collection adorns the walls.

Lotus Lane

Edging Qianhai Lake is the cobblestone promenade of Lotus Lane. Here you can get a Starbucks fix, or wine and dine at some of the area's most upmarket restaurants, bars and nightclubs.

In warmer months, these establishments set out alfresco seating, and the place is ideal for relaxing and people-watching of a very international sort.

For those who enjoy life on the water, it's even possible to hire a boat and eat dinner afloat, propelled slowly across the lake by your very own Chinese oarsman.


To the east of Qianhai is the Bohemian area of Nanluoguxiang - despite recent gentrification it has managed to retain its old Beijing charm, and is now one of the city's newer nightlife hotspots. The Nanluoguxiang siheyuan (courtyards) have a history of seven hundred years, covering the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties - in the Yuan Dynasty, Nanluoguxiang street was Beijing 's major north-south route thoroughfare.

Both sides of Nanluoguxiang are now lined with an eclectic mix of Western and local restaurants, shops and bars, and in the evening the area is packed with youthful expats and Chinese. Popular hangouts include the Passby Bar, Salud and Fish Nation. During the day life in Nanluoguxiang is more relaxed - retired locals with red armbands stroll through the hutong, Chinese coal brickets are delivered by tricycle, and housewives exchange the latest gossip on street corners.

Houhai Hutong, Beijing.

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