“Iron Gate Hutong” by Bao Dongni

Iron Gate Hutong, Bao Dongni, Wu Zhai (illus), Chris Robyn (trans) (Long River Books, April 2024) Iron Gate Hutong, Bao Dongni, Wu Zhai (illus), Chris Robyn (trans) (Long River Books, April 2024)

On a sunny day, a young girl skips in the courtyard of her home in Iron Gate Hutong. She’s alone, but across the alley life is busy.  


My family lived in a courtyard house in Beijing, China. These unique homes have courtyards surrounded by rooms. It is a very traditional style of home in China. The houses have front gates which open onto hutongs, or alleys. These alleys were at the center of our daily lives.


Iron Gate Hutong by Bao Dongni and illustrated by Wu Zhai tells a story of this young narrator over the course of a year in the hutong. Available in English through a translation by Chris Robyn (the original Chinese text appears below the English as an added bonus for Chinese learners and readers), Iron Gate Hutong begins on a spring day, before following the seasons and the annual festivals that are celebrated throughout the year. Each season or festival is written as a vignette in a style that is both conversational and matter-of-fact. Of the Dragon Boat Festival, Bao writes:


We walked to Mr. and Mrs. Chen’s house. It just so happened that Mr. and Mrs. Chen were coming out. Mr. Chen was a teacher. Mr. Chen said I reminded him of his daughter when she was young, before she went away to school.


As the seasons change, the young narrator’s father departs on a business trip, returning on the eve of Lunar New Year to complete the year.


But while the story concludes, it doesn’t quite end—Bao then jumps to present day, the young girl is now an old woman.


In Beijing today, you can’t see so much snow anymore. Iron Gate Hutong was my home. The tree is still in the same place. But many of the hutongs are gone. They live only in memories.


The words are accompanied by a sepia drawing of an older woman bundled up in a coat and scarf, her back turned to the reader as she stands beside a towering tree. It’s one of two such images that bookend the story, with the opening page featuring the same woman as a young girl, standing proud against a tree in full bloom. The passage of time is obvious as are Bao’s words, but the author’s note at the end of the story also explains Bao’s real-life inspiration for the book—an 85-year-old grandmother who lived in Iron Gate Hutong as a young girl. While almost all of the houses are now gone, the tree remains.


Wu Zhai’s illustrations are given plenty of space to shine. Detailed and full of color, there’s a warmth  that also speaks to the feeling of nostalgia that runs through the pages. Wu adds in small details for a careful observer: a cat reaching up to catch the petals of pink flowers falling from a tree, an inquisitive look from the young girl who catches her brother sneaking food ahead of Lunar New Year. There’s a sense of fun that accompanies the illustrations, one that adds a spark to the relived memories.

Iron Gate Hutong is a welcome addition to dual-language children’s books that offers an accessible way for young readers to explore the history of Beijing’s famed hutongs.

Melanie Ho is the author of Journey to the West: He Hui, a Chinese Soprano in the World of Italian Opera.