When you are in Chengdu and have a couple of hours to spare and a hungry stomach, there’s an excellent place to grab a quick meal and watch the world goes by. I am referring to the Kuanzhai Alley (宽窄巷子).
Origin of the Alleys
Situated in the downtown of Chengdu city, Kuanzhai Alley (宽窄巷子), literally Wide and Narrow Alleys, consists of Kuan Alley (宽巷, “wide alley”), Zhai Alley (窄巷, “narrow alley”), and Jing Alley (井巷, “water well alley”).
In 57th year of Qing Emperor Kangxi (康熙57年, 1718), the Qing government sent about 3,000 soldiers to Tibet to quash a rebellion. After the war ended, over one thousand Baqi Garrison and their families stayed back in Chengdu. 42 alleys were allocated for generals, soldiers and their families, which included Kuan, Zhai and Jing Alleys. Over river of time, urbanisation swallowed up the historical relics of old Chengdu, and nowadays only three out of 42 alleys remain.
Jing (井) Alley
Jing (井) Alley is called 如意胡同 “Ruyi Hutong” or 明德胡同 “Mingde Hutong” in Qing dynasty. It is said that after many Qing troops came to Chengdu, the water was insufficient, so people dug a well in the west end of this alley, so, it has been called Jing Alley (alley of well). As the residents here were almost servants during that time, the buildings are a little humble and worn-out on this alley.
Zhai (窄) Alley
Zhai (窄) Alley, 5 meters in width, was called 太平胡同 (“Taiping Hutong” or “peace hutong”) in Qing dynasty.
The architectural style of Zhai Alley has been changed into the mixture of western feature and traditional Chinese style, since groups of foreign people purchased and rebuilt houses here during the late Qing dynasty and early Nationalist period.
One of these with see arches and glass windows incorporated into traditional four courtyard 四合院 arrangement was converted to a quaint bookstore and cafe. The number of bookstores in Chengdu is the second highest in China. As an independent courtyard, Sanlian Taofen Books integrates western Sichuan architectural styles and its inherent “blue” identity.
三联书店 Sanlian Press is a name that I grew up with. My first Chinese dictionary was published by Sanlian. They originated in Shanghai, went to Hong Kong when the Nationalist government retreated, and finally made one full circle back to mainland China. But today, Sanlian Shanghai and Sanlian Hong Kong are two totally separated entities. On Mar 2021, Sanlian HK was found guilty of printing “false information” against the HK government.
Sanlian Taofen Bookstore 三联韬奋书店
No.30 Zhai Alley 窄巷子30号
As you walk down Zhai Alley, look out for the “Horse Hitching Statue” (拴马石). In the old days where horses were a main form of transport, every rich household would need a place to “park” their horses. The richer folks would have a “garage” inside the compound. The rest would have to just tie their horses on these “parking lots”.
Modern convenience has taken over some of these beautiful old houses, including one of the most beautiful Starbucks Coffee. And when you see this Starbucks, you can walk alongside its walls to get to the Kuan Alley.
Kuan (宽) Alley
Anciently called 兴仁胡同 “Xingren Hutong”, Kuan (宽) Alley is the district of leisure where ancient life of Chengdu people is reproduced. It is said that military officers of high status lived here then and they went out by carriage, so Kuan Alley is built with a width of 7-8 meters.
Nowadays, wandering along this alley, you can appreciate more than 20 old courtyards and ancient doors of exquisite decorations.
Every corner in Kuan Alley shows the nostalgic feature, so you can choose a tea house to taste the famous covered-bowl tea or try the world famous Sichuan cuisine in a restaurant to feel the old life of Chengdu.
Eating in the Alleys
There are many choices for every budget, from street food to proper sit-down restaurants that offer more than just a meal.
One of the delicacies on offer is rabbit. These are farmed for their meat, and you can see them at every corner. The most common method of preparation is to cook them in Sichuan peppercorns. You can even buy vacuum packed versions to be reheat back home. Yes, no rabbit leaves Chengdu alive.
To get here, you just need to tell the taxi to go to “Kuan Zhai Xiang”. There are three entrances and either one would be fine. However these days, you need to check where the checkpoints are, because you need a Green health code to enter.
Date visited : Dec 2021