Text & Photos: Rania Ho
Text editing: Wang Wei

Figure 1: Bricked front entrance at Wu Jin, Langjia Hutong (2018)

Wu Jin is a twelve-seat cafe and small bookshop in Beijing. At Wu Jin, profit is not an end in itself, but rather a pretext for realizing other projects like experimental music performances, film screenings, hosting bar nights and book launches. The following text is excerpted from Wu Jin’s recipe and handbook currently in production.

Running a space of this nature in Beijing has its unconventional moments. We hope our story can shed light on the improvisational nature of working in Beijing’s hutong alleyways. Perhaps this account can help others navigate their own complex and ever-changing territories, or at the very least, be an amusing tale. 

“The only things that matter in life
are food and love, in that order…” 

Artist David Hockney,
in Coronavirus lockdown

Figure 2: Exterior view of Wu Jin, Jianchang Hutong (2017)

What is Wu Jin?

Wu Jin is an experiment in running a small business that supports a platform for events, performances and different activities—like meetings, parties, readings, screenings, exhibitions, and more. On weekends, Wu Jin’s fifteen square-meter space operates as a brunch café business. At other times, the venue functions as a flexible platform hosting many types of gatherings. Different people come to Wu Jin (office workers, artists, musicians, students, locals and so on), but due to its limited size and out-of-the-way location, it tends to attract a less-mainstream audience, appealing to a self-selecting group of creative individuals. As a business and a platform, Wu Jin is open to anyone who is interested to find us, and our priority is to be a meaningful and sustainable place for these individuals and their communities.

Wu Jin’s main endeavor is providing a platform for social and creative activities. Participation in the platform takes many forms. Guest bartender events, family dinners, experimental music performances, readings, book club meetings, exhibitions, film screenings, and independent publishing projects are just a few examples of the different manifestations of this platform. The various activities are sometimes initiated by Wu Jin’s staff or owners, but mostly, it’s others. These gatherings contribute to a healthy cultural ecosystem in Beijing: an environment where a diversity of players, large and small, can all make their own vital contributions. Over the years, Wu Jin has found numerous ways to spark ideas, connect people, and enrich each of our lived experiences.

Figure 3: Interior view of Wu Jin at Jianchang Hutong (2013)

Wu Jin’s platform is integrated with a small café business. Our experiment is to balance these two entities: a pop-up event space and a longer-lasting commercial fixture. This means staying flexible, spontaneous and open to diverse programming, while also being practical and acknowledging our limitations. To this end, Wu Jin’s platform often presents one-off activities that last only an evening or two, while the café business is a more regular and sustained activity that secures Wu Jin’s longer-term survival. Currently, the café is self-supporting, and prioritizes sustainability over the pursuit of profit or expansion. Wu Jin’s café business generates enough income to cover rent, utilities, staff salaries, and business expenses, but the co-owners do not pocket any revenue or a salary. Instead, the café’s profits support the platform’s various projects. Combining a space for one-off activities with a more enduring business entity allows for ongoing experimentation. In turn, this experiment provides immediate audience feedback and reality-checks, and also allows us to bear witness to the changes happening around us over a longer span of time. Over the years, we (the owners and staff) have found a delicate equilibrium where we resist aspirations of permanence, while also defying the impulse to have Wu Jin collapse into a momentary flash in the pan. Wu Jin has sustained this particular (and peculiar) experiment of combining a pop-up with relative longevity for over eight years.

Wu Jin was started by a chef, Kin Hong, and three artists: Fang Lu, and Wang Wei, and I (Rania Ho). Over time, the team evolved. We currently consist of a philosophy scholar, Michael Yuen, working with two original team members, Wang Wei and I, along with a group of loyal staff and friends. According to our passports, we are Chinese, American and Australian, but these official documents insufficiently describe the in-betweenness of our existences: the unique ways that each of us moves through different worlds, as long-term Beijing residents and as descendants of Asian diaspora. Wu Jin embodies a highly personalized state of in-betweenness in which we learn a lot from each other. 

Figure 4: Interior view of Wu Jin, Jianchang Hutong. Staff member, Ake, looks on. (2017)


Wu Jin was born in May 2013 when a “For Rent” sign appeared in the window of a neighborhood hardware and housewares shop. With an area of nine square-meters and an affordable price (¥2500/month), we signed a lease with no clear business plan. This small inexpensive space was low-risk, and thus we could experiment with making a unique, compelling, and (hopefully) sustainable business on a moderately trafficked alley called Jianchang Hutong. On one side of the space stood a general store; a fresh noodle and pancake (bing) stand was on the other. Also located along this small commercial strip were a fresh vegetable stall, a tailor shop and a small art space called Arrow Factory (Wang Wei and I were also part of the group that ran Arrow Factory). Locals could find almost all necessary provisions for daily life along this strip (art included.) Originally, the artists (Fang Lu, Wang Wei and I) wanted to sell independent publications and artist books. Fortunately, the chef (Kin Hong) had the good sense to know that a small independent bookstore was an unsustainable business model, and suggested a modestly priced neighborhood café/bar with a small retail bookshelf instead. We agreed that this was a good idea.

The name Wu Jin 五金 honors the space’s previous tenant. In Chinese, Wu Jin is the generic term for hardware. It translates to five (wu五), metals (jin金). Traditionally, the five essential metals are gold (jin金), silver (yin银), copper (tong铜), iron (tie铁) and tin (xi锡). The idea of five metals became a metaphor for paring down to basics, and this evolved into a manifesto for the project. We kept the original hardware store sign above the door thinking it looked ‘cool.’

Figure 5: Weekend scene at Wu Jin, Jianchang Hutong (2015)

Quasi-legal Status

Wu Jin’s original premises shared a business license with the adjacent bing pancake shop. Our shared permit hung on their wall in an old wooden frame. It granted permission for our two shops to sell pancakes, fresh noodles, housewares and hardware. We rationalized to ourselves that toast also could be categorized as pancakes, since both are made from flour, water and salt. This was our work-around to comply with the shared permit. Our landlord assured us that this license-sharing arrangement was never an issue in the past.

As expected, the commerce department’s inspectors came to Wu Jin a few weeks after opening to confirm the change of business ownership. They pointed to the leftover hardware shop sign overhead and requested we replace it with a larger placard that spanned over both shops, since the two storefronts were registered as a single entity. We quietly removed the existing signboard, and ‘forgot’ their suggestion to hang a larger signboard. The inspectors never mentioned it again. Lesson learnt: doing nothing (or very little) is a way to get things done.

Figure 6: Interior view of Wu Jin. Jianchang Hutong (2017)

Idiosyncratic Business Model

Wu Jin’s full-height, half-frosted, sliding-glass door encapsulated our status in the neighborhood–open, yet half-obscured. Without proper signage, our cafe relied on word of mouth. As a semi-legal entity, we cautiously maneuvered between avoiding attracting attention from the commerce department and wanting people to find us. In retrospect, our anxiety was unwarranted. Authorities and neighbors did not flinch at the appearance of this new business. But, the local residents were disappointed that their local housewares shop was gone.

Wu Jin became a neighborhood meeting place, an extension of our living rooms, and a conduit for information exchange. During the first few months, we made newsletter zines featuring local area tips from knowledgeable neighbors, such as restaurant recommendations and places for shoe and bag repair. The zine also surveyed the best places to buy underwear, and charted fluctuating avocado prices in the different neighborhood shops. Sharing information through our photocopied zine pre-dated the rise in popularity of social networking apps such as WeChat and Instagram. 

Figure 7: Wu Jin Newsletter, Issue 2 (2013)

In mid-2015, after quietly operating for two years, health inspectors began making unannounced visits to Wu Jin. We were summoned their offices and told that all eateries smaller than thirty square-meters were being phased out. This confounded us, and many others, as most small restaurants in the area were less than thirty square-meters (Wu Jin was nine square-meters). The history of these small hole-in-the-wall shops and restaurants traces back to the 1990s when China’s Reform and Opening policy saw many state-run industries privatized or shut down. To remedy rising unemployment, the government encouraged laid-off workers to start small family-run businesses, hailing local entrepreneurship as the path to self-sufficiency. Through these and other liberalizing policies, there was unprecedented economic growth for the following twenty-five years. Each year, regulations on these small businesses would continuously evolve, playing catch up to the actual conditions on the ground. Economic growth had begun to plateau in 2015, and new policies were aimed at raising the living conditions in the hutongs. When Wu Jin’s nine square-meters space did not meet the requirements for a commercial eatery, we did what most people would do when faced with unsurmountable regulations: search for help through guanxi—that is, connections. We tapped many channels in our quest for a legitimate business license, but all came up empty.

In one last ditch effort, our landlord offered to help us purchase a convenience store permit. It was a risky work-around and with little guarantee of success. Moreover, the asking price was staggering. After some discussion, we decided to give up on an official license and changed tactics. Wu Jin’s opening hours shifted to weekends and evenings, when government inspectors are typically off duty.

Figure 8: Wu Jin Guest Bartender event. Jianchang Hutong (2013)

From that point onward, Wu Jin became a weekend brunch spot. An upshot was that Wu Jin was empty during the week, so we allocated keys to a trusted group of friends. During the weekdays, these keyholders could access Wu Jin as a shared workspace. In distributing keys, we also discovered that many people harbored fantasies about running a bar. So in the evenings, we opened the space by appointment for Guest Bartender events, where friends and acquaintances could live out these fantasies.

Figure 9: Wu Jin Guest Bartender event. The original hardware store sign hangs above the door. Jianchang Hutong (2014)

Through incremental responses to an ever-shifting situation, our highly-idiosyncratic and eccentric business model began to take shape.

Figure 10: Workers dismantle Wu Jin's doorframe. Jianchang Hutong (2017)

The Brick Walls

In fall of 2016, local government agents and work crews descended on nearby Baochao Hutong, bricking up all the storefronts along the street. The authorities claimed to be restoring the alley to its “Ming Dynasty glory,” but in reality, the alley was a wreckage of messy brickwork and cement. Through the ‘tidying up’ of these streets, most of the storefronts in the hutongs were lost. However, despite the disruption, the neighborhood denizens did their best to continue daily operations. Local residents ducked into courtyards behind the freshly erected brick walls to patronize their regular vegetable stalls. The outraged web-sphere denounced the bricking as “classist” and “ruthless,” as most hutong businesses were run by lower-income migrants from other provinces1. The local authorities ignored the public outcry, and work crews continued with the neighborhood ‘face lift.’ It was inevitable that Wu Jin would also meet this fate.

In May 2017, Fangjia Hutong, located just 200 meters south of Wu Jin, saw its lively bar and restaurant scene bricked up. After a few days of intense ‘retrofitting,’ most shop windows were either sealed off or reduced to a fraction of their previous size. Young partiers wandered the street in a daze, looking for the remains of their regular watering holes. A few bars placed ladders outside their doors-turned-windows for customers to either climb in or order drinks in take-away cups. The creativity of business owners and their patrons during this time was impressive and comical: resistance became a game. Unfortunately, in the months that followed, local government pressure increased, and eventually nearly all the hutong businesses closed up and left. Multiple coats of paint and detailed plasterwork erased the remaining ‘scars’ of shops that were once there, as if all that life never happened. For many small business owners, shopkeepers and merchants, this event was (and remains) a collective point of trauma. As the brick walls went up, the shop owners took cover and scattered in all directions—to other parts of the city, to their hometowns or into different business ventures. Many people never returned to the hutongs. Once the bricking ended, those who did return emerged shaken, resentful and saddled with economic as well as emotional loss. 

On the morning of August 2, 2017, a stern-looking group of supervisors with hardhats and clipboards arrived to Jianchang Hutong. They pointed and shouted while pacing the street: “Change that door to a window! Close this opening up!” Crowbar wielding workers unceremoniously pried off Wu Jin’s glass facade and hauled it away. Moments later, the crews dropped a sloppy stream of bricks and mortar into the opening. It was painful to watch, but I felt an obligation to witness Wu Jin being transformed into a crypt. Staff members and regular customers with furrowed brows also came and went that afternoon. Many stood shaking their heads as they snapped photos of the destruction. Late in the day, as Wang Wei and I stood on the street, one particularly masochistic construction worker barked at us, asking where along the back wall he should cut a new entrance for the space. I sarcastically replied that his question was absurd, as the space was already trashed and unusable. The worker became indignant, and screamed that without more specific instructions, he would “not be responsible for messing it up.” Gripping a rotary saw in one hand, about to slash up a perfectly good wall, he stood in a choking cloud of dust. “Messing it up” is obviously a matter of perspective. As I opened my mouth for a more forceful reply, it came out as uncontrollable weeping. In my fury, I tried summoning Hannah Arendt, arguing that we are all ultimately responsible for our own actions, but all I could manage was incomprehensible blubbering. The worker stood there with a flat grin, intoxicated by this awkward scene and his fleeting moment of power. A few moments later, I stopped hyper-ventilating, pointed to a place along the wall to put a door, and he started sawing.

Figure 11: Bricking of Wu Jin's facade. Jianchang Hutong (2017)

Figure 12: (Left to right) Ake, Rania Ho and Wang Wei in Wu Jin’s Jianchang Hutong location while workers brick up the facade. A worker takes a break nearby. (2017)*

Wu Jin ceased operations on that day. As the radial saw sliced through the back wall, it exposed a long-standing feud between our landlord and the neighbor just behind Wu Jin’s space. Renting out a storefront space along the street had been highly lucrative for our landlord; he earned exponential amounts in comparison to this neighbor. Suddenly, the years of quiet resentment erupted into a toxic dispute between them. We left them to fight it out amongst themselves. 

Figure 13: Wu Jin’s bricked up facade. Jianchang Hutong (2017)

For a while, the other businesses in Jianchang Hutong continued to trade in their bricked-up state. But in turn, each closed, or moved to new locations. The street turned quiet. Wu Jin’s team retreated to nurse our wounds. Learning to survive is also learning to let go. 


For months after the bricking, our staff met regularly for drinks at a small dive bar called SOS, which like Wu Jin, was a business on the fringes of legitimacy. The owner of SOS invited us to host a Wu Jin pop-up at their location. Many former customers came and reunited with friends they had not met since Wu Jin closed. We discovered that some of them only met at Wu Jin, and otherwise did not cross paths in their daily lives. It seemed that Wu Jin was instrumental in developing a physical social network in the neighborhood.

Figure 14: Wu Jin’s front door at Langjia Hutong

A few months later, we found a new space in Langjia Hutong, a ten-minute walk from our original location. Like other street-side shops around us, our front door was at risk of being bricked up again, but this particular location had an existing back door. We designed the space so that if the front entrance was walled up, we could unlock the back door. After some minor remodeling, Wu Jin re-opened in May of 2018. Then after five months, as predicted, work crews with bricks in tow arrived to seal our front door again. This time, as the front door frame was ripped out and bricked up, we simply opened the back door. No blubbering this time.

Figure 15: Demolishing Wu Jin's front door at Langjia Hutong (2018)

Figure 16: Interior view of Wu Jin's former front door at Langjia Hutong (2018)

Figure 17: Interior view of Wu Jin's reconfigured entrance at Langjia Hutong (2018)

After Wu Jin’s front door was ‘erased’ for a second time, the construction crews continued to ‘tidy up’ the hutongs. In one final round of ‘improvements,’ the second-floor directly upstairs from Wu Jin was declared an illegal construction. After a protracted dispute, while Wu Jin continued with our own affairs behind a layer of scaffolding, the landlord and the local authorities came to a compromise. Rather than demolishing the entire second floor, as had been done with some adjacent two-story buildings, workers merely shaved off the entire street-side edge of the building at forty-five degrees to create a pitched roofline. The sheared second-floor rooms sat empty and exposed to the elements for six months, with only a plastic sheet draped over the roofless spaces as cover. One of our enterprising staff members had just started planning to use the mutilated spaces as Airbnb rentals when the coronavirus hit, and we were all home-bound for four months. When Beijing emerged from the lockdown, our landlord hastily poured a new concrete roof and remodeled the rooms. He now rents the second-floor to migrant workers who work for the local government. These workers are part of the same crews that were tasked earlier to return the hutongs to their “Ming Dynasty glory” and brick up the storefront holes-in-the-walls. The bricking campaign hit its three-year milestone in 2019 and quietly concluded. The work crews have now moved on to other assignments.

Figure 18: Interior view of Wu Jin's reconfigured entrance at Langjia Hutong (2019)

Wu Jin’s off-beat experiment is far from concluded. Our experiences are not unique, and are just one of many similar stories in the hutongs. From the outset, we had no idea how this experiment would evolve, and our operational model continues to develop through much trial and error. Running a small business that supports a creative and social platform is a balancing act—and a delicate one at that—requiring tenacity and open-mindedness. Wu Jin’s experiment is to respond to our changing social and political context, and find creative ways to be a sustained and meaningful presence in the hutongs.

Figure 19: Interior view of Wu Jin at Langjia Hutong (2019)


1. Steven Lee Meyers. New York Times.
“A Cleanup of ‘Holes in the Wall’ in China’s Capital”
Available at: → New York Times (Accessed March 2019)

2. James Palmer. Foreign Policy.
“How to Destroy the Heart of a Chinese City.”
Available at: → Foreign Policy (Accessed March 2019)

3. Wang Yue. Outlook Weekly 2017-06-16
Available at: → weixing.qq (Accessed April 2021)


All photos courtesy of Wu Jin except (*) photo courtesy of Céline Lamée