Backstreet Beijing

The room smelled like charcoal, and the familiar soundtrack of Beijing life floated in from outside: the throaty call of a wandering knife-sharpener, the laughter of running children, the honks of an impatient motorist trying to park a car. Our hostess was telling us about living in a hutong—one of the traditional residential alleys latticing China's capital in a dense network. As she finished, the room of visiting Westerners chorused approval, and our guide asked if there were any questions. Naturally, there was only one. Where, our group wondered, did the typical hutong resident go to the bathroom? "In the latrine,"...

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