Exploring Alleyways in Asian Cities

Hans Schenk

Eight inner-city neighborhoods in as many East and Southeast Asian metropoles, studied by seven researchers, come to the fore in this edited book: in Bangkok, Beijing, Ho Chi Minh City, Hong Kong, Seoul, Shanghai, Taipei, and Tokyo. The eight neighborhoods were in the past – and some of them are to some extent even now ­­– characterized by lanes and alleyways off the bordering major roads. These minor and narrow roads and footpaths have sometimes formed painstaking rectangles like Shanghai’s alleyways (lilong), while they may also oscillate between and around the often low-rise rows of houses or have dead-ends elsewhere. “The further we get from the structured main streets, the more random the alleyway grid becomes,” writes Marie Gibert-Flutre about a ward in Ho Chi Minh City (p. 39). Such neighborhoods, which are in this book confusingly enough simultaneously referred to as alleyways, were inhabited by cross sections of the respective local populations.

Summarized by Jiayu Ding and Xiaohua Zhong for Shanghai’s lilong alleyways: “factory workers, teachers, doctors, and officials lived together” (p. 140). They lived “packed tightly within alleyways,” as Wimonrart Issarathumnoon describes about the inner city of Bangkok (p. 120). Most authors mention the often uncomfortable, small, and overcrowded dwellings. In Beijing’s courtyard houses bordering its alleyways (hutong), for example, inhabitants were squeezed out of their homes, towards the yards, and further into the lanes and alleys.  In the words of Judith Audin, “chess and poker players put chairs, stools and used sofas outside” (p. 65). Neighbors chat, and public toilets are within walking distance. These major and minor lanes and alleys formed a fine-grained system of buffers, semi-private transit zones perceived as common spaces with unclear borders. They exist between the houses which could not offer privacy and the fully public and open realms (i.e., the main urban streets).

The lanes and alleys did not only provide additional living space to its inhabitants; they also offered an extensive range of services. Jeffrey Hou remembers, in the shang-nong (alleyways) in Taipei where he grew up, the daily vendors announcing their arrival by specific horns: selling ice-creams, tofu-desserts, sweet potatoes, soup noodles, and finally glutinous rice packed in bamboo leaves (pp. 159-160). The lanes and alleys were the lifelines of the neighborhoods and their inhabitants in this volume. They were “the everyday stage” for over half of all  Shanghai’s citizens before 1949 (p. 140), or, according to Gibert-Flutre, for 85% of the 10 million inhabitants of Ho Chi Minh City. They offered the opportunity for placemaking, the settings for human interaction, the creation of place-based identities, and the development of senses of belonging in growing and globalizing metropoles. Hence, an appropriate and more meaningful name for these alleyways might well be needed. Such a name does exist and has been given elsewhere to local lanes and alleys: capillary lanes. 1 Used for Kunming by Wang Xuehai, “Good Design is rooted in Cultural Exchange.” In Carl Fingerhuth (ed), The Kunming Project, Basel, Birkhause, 2002, p. 62.


Contested spaces and the art of remaining local

The neighborhoods, their lanes and alleys, and their inhabitants living alongside these many capillaries can in the first place just be seen as interesting objects of monographic studies, “providing the setting for everyday urban life” (p. 25) as the editors write in their introductory chapter. The authors present their case studies in subsequent chapters, in which “snapshots and in-depth portraits of cities, their ordinary places and people inhabiting them” are given (p. 26). These pictures should – according to the editors – show how residents of alleyway neighborhoods are making sense of the places they inhabit, how they interact with fellow inhabitants, and how they develop shared values.

But the intentions expressed by the editors in their introductory and concluding chapters, and in the descriptions of the neighborhoods in the eight globalizing cities, go far beyond snapshots and in-depth portraits. All authors place ‘their’ objects of study explicitly in the dynamic perspectives of rapidly changing Asian metropolitan cities. The neighborhoods have subsequently been framed as contested places, 2 The term ‘contested’ could bring the reader smoothly to the ideas developed a century ago in the ‘Chicago School’ of the so-called human ecology, where urban socio-spatial processes of change were analysed. The editors and authors do unfortunately not refer to this intellectual source.  located at the meeting-place with the powerful, often globally-induced economic, social, and spatial ‘modern’ forces. The authors picture these forces as attempting to reshape cities into modernist functional zones filled with high-rise offices or residential towers amidst cleaned and empty streets. But opposite these forces, the authors portray an existing mosaic of collaborating or opposing actors in vulnerable, marginalized inner-city neighborhoods, which provide the threatened settings of ordinary people’s fine-grained everyday life. One could say that “the art of being global” 3 A. Roy & A. Ong, (eds), Worlding Cities, Asian experiments and the Art of Being Global, Malden, Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.  has been paraphrased in this volume, where “the art of remaining local” is at stake.  And more: the editors take an explicit and outspoken moral position in approaching the vulnerable alleyway neighborhoods. Such neighborhoods form “meaningful places that ideally make the city more liveable and attractive for diverse forms of living” (p. 218). There should be no place for the universalist man of Le Corbusier and the pure modernists!

From these observations and position statements, the editors and other authors explicitly seek to “reconceptualize alleyways and their potential to ameliorate the adverse effects of metropolization” (p. 26). Hence, the several case studies represent a kaleidoscope of settings and characteristics of alleyway neighborhoods. They represent a broad spectrum of types as well of changes and of local reactions, which are exposed to an ultimate balance sheet of reconceptualized alleyways and ameliorated effects of modernization. In a nutshell: Heide Imai concludes – after having studied the characteristics and processes of change in former downtown alleyway-type neighborhoods in Tokyo and Seoul (roji in Tokyo; golmok in Seoul) – that successive waves of modernization, marked by gentrification and commodification, have resulted in just a few remaining alleyway pockets and nostalgia. Roji and golmok are then only to remain in these two cities as mental spaces, providing for an “alternative landscape of reminiscence” (p. 110). But on the other hand, Wimonrart Issarathumnoon’s analysis of a Bangkok inner city alleyway neighborhood shows how its characteristics last. The densely inhabited neighborhood, accessible by narrow walkways (trok) and slightly wider roads (soi), were since the 1970s gradually transformed into cultural and tourist centers. This was aided by a master plan aiming at physical conservation and at the survival of local entrepreneurs, supported by community activities. The author characterizes the neighborhood now as a “harmonious blend of ordinary activities, playful cultural events, and attractively designed retail shops, workshops, and studios” (p. 136).

An expanding and annoying, but increasingly popular night market in Taipei, officially designated as a tourist attraction, angered residents and made the authorities – following some incidents – change their minds and start community building activities in the neighborhood. Its capillaries, writes Jeffrey Hou, “enabled the activities […] to be highly visible and accessible to the community” (p. 175). Placemaking and community development flourished partly due to long-standing public support. Somewhat comparable is a project in a neighborhood in Hong Kong. The area, under threat of gentrification due to a newly opened Metro line, made a few voluntary organizations with public support start place-making activities on its footpaths and stairs. These activities aimed to “rebuild a sense of community between the old and new residents through shared activities and spaces” (p. 199), as Melissa Cate Christ and Hendrik Tieben describe. Meanwhile, the local authorities in Ho Chi Minh City emerged as pro-growth advocates when they started widening alleyways (hm) to facilitate motorized traffic and clearing the sidewalks of street vendors and roadside stalls to achieve ‘modernity,’ ‘civilization,’ and ‘urban beauty,’ writes Marie Gibert-Flutre. Against this desire to control the space of the street in favor of the – motorized – middle class, the author observes individual reactions. Front doors of the formerly constantly open shophouses are kept closed now. Thus, “Households keep their daily life more private” (p. 50).

The liberalization of real estate in in Beijing and Shanghai since the 1980s has caused massive demolitions of deteriorated hutong and lilong complexes and resettlement of their inhabitants in new apartment blocks, in situ or far away. Judith Audin describes the frequent demolitions in Beijing, notably during the years before the 2008 Olympics, accompanied by a public civilizing campaign to show the world a clean and modern Beijing. Still-remaining inhabitants managed to initiate a sizeable tourist industry, as the author demonstrates for an inner-city hutong, now a well-known focus of tourism. Residents sublet houses, and “hutong rooms became small shops: hair salons, canteens, convenience shops, or hotels” (p. 73). But those who could afford it moved out, and Audin concludes: “The shared experience of ‘hutong life’ is being replaced by other residential standards” (p. 82). Demolitions in Shanghai culminated in the 1990s with the development of a foreign-funded up-market commercial and entertainment complex in lilong style, faked on the site of an impoverished lilong called Xintiandi. 4 Its site is, ironical enough, sandwiched between an outlet of an American coffeeshop chain and the venue (now museum) of the First National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 1921.  Its success made Shanghai’s authorities aware of the economic value of heritage, leading to some renovated and upgraded lilong housing complexes, and a bottom-up transformation of a neighborhood into a less exclusive shopping and entertainment area: Tianzifang. Jiayu Ding and Xiahua Zhong explain how this complex was developed as an alliance between a range of local stakeholders and legitimized by the government. However, its success made rents rise, and a commercial gentrification process started, accompanied by the departure of creative shops and similar businesses.


The presented case studies are interesting and show the shades of grey when processes pertaining to the capillary neighborhoods – written in the imperfect past or the present tense – are presented. They share the regret of a threatening or real loss that needs not only to be archived, but possibly restored in one way or the other. The editors suggest the reappropriation of the potential of the now vanishing alleyways through the creation in urban design of “places that support a sense of attachment to place in which we can identify with our surroundings and yet keep pace with the speed of contemporary life” (p. 217). This is fine, and the intention will be shared by many. But the attention given to the need for placemaking and community-building is far from matched with reflections on the housing conditions of the (former) inhabitants of the neighborhoods. They live(d) in cramped conditions, as all authors remarked, but this seems almost an asset to some. Houses are very small, and domestic activities (e.g., cooking, doing laundry) take place on the alleyways. Gibert-Flutre writes, “This results in a deep sense of community along the alleyways” (p. 43). One may ask: does it? Are no other feelings also at stake? In this volume, only Audin writes in nuanced wordings about life in alleyway neighborhoods, in her case in Beijing’s hutong: “The constant pressure of neighbors can be difficult to bear when they observe and comment on all facts and behaviours” (p. 66). She even cynically adds: “Being attached to the place is also a way to justify the material incapacity of moving” (p. 80).

Anyway, there are plenty of reasons to focus on better housing conditions in the alleyway neighborhoods in the cities in this book. Better housing (accessible to the rank and file of the local populations) might even be a key towards a durable future for these inner-city neighborhoods. This absent attention is hence regrettable. I also regret the absence of insights regarding those inhabitants of the neighborhoods who left. Why? Who exactly?  Where did they go? What about their new dwelling and living environment? Regrets or relief?

I close with a final remark. The title suggests that the book will bring the reader to Asian alleyways, but it shows the capillaries only in East and Southeast Asian cities. Wat about South Asia? How, for example, would a North Indian urban neighborhood look and react to the types of outside changes that have come to the fore in this book? Which complications would gender and caste create? 

But concluding, the series of studies that have been presented in this volume under the umbrella of the two editors are interesting, thought provoking, and inviting for further research What more could we want?