Alibaba Group harvested ten billion yuan (USD 1.47 billion) within just six minutes 58 seconds after the clock struck zero on Nov. 11, 2016. Without new payment modes, the public would not have bought so crazily, and neither would e-businesses have developed so rapidly. Today money looks more like a number, and you may transfer it to sellers in just a few seconds on cell phones. However, it was quite troublesome for Beijingers to sell and buy goods in the past, which bred the earliest “financial street” in Beijing.
Zhubaoshi Jie seen from Qianshi Hutong. [Photo by Zhang Jing/Qianlong]
In the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), farmers and craftsmen sold their grains and handicrafts for coppers, and they had to exchange coppers for silver when paying taxes as the Qing court only accepted silver when collecting taxes. Thus money exchange shops gradually thrived and Qianshi Hutong to the west of Zhubaoshi Jie became the main official market for currency exchange in Beijing.
Zhubaoshi Jie was home to the government-granted workshops where silver ingots and copper coins were made. So it’s no wonder that Qianshi Hutong would turn into a main venue for silver and copper exchange then.
Traces of the former financial street
Qianshi Hutong is actually a small alleyway. [Photo by Zhang Jing/Qianlong]
You may easily neglect and miss Qianshi Hutong when walking on Zhubaoshi Jie. The 50-meter dead-end hutong is 80 centimeters wide at the widest point and 40 centimeters wide at the narrowest point in the middle.
The building “Qianshi” , literally “currency market”, used to be the official currency exchange hall of the Qing Dynasty and thus the alley was named Qianshi Hutong. [Photo by Zhang Jing/Qianlong]
Deep in Qianshi Hutong lies a building built during Emperor Guangxu’s reign (1875-1908). The building of around 100 square meters with a wooded cover, a courtyard and windows on two side walls used to be the official currency exchange hall of the Qing Dynasty, which was known as “Qianshi”, literally “currency market”, and thus the alleyway gained its name Qianshi Hutong.
In the Qing Dynasty, silver and copper were the main currencies, and the exchange rates between the two were first released at the currency exchange hall in Qianshi Hutong. Everyday large money shops and businesses in Beijing would send employees there to check the exchange rate. As there were no such facilities as cell phones, the employees often took two to three pigeons with them and once a big fluctuation to the exchange rate occurred, they would write it on a small piece of cloth, and tie it to the pigeons’ legs so that the pigeons could bring the news back to the shops quickly. The busy scene could rival today’s stock exchange market.
Old couplets on the gate of Courtyard 2 in Qianshi Hutong. [Photo by Zhang Jing/Qianlong]
Old couplets on the gate of Courtyard 4 in Qianshi Hutong. [Photo by Zhang Jing/Qianlong]
Five courtyards of the same size can still be found in today’s Qianshi Hutong, and they were where silver ingots were made in the Qing Dynasty. The couplets on the gates of the courtyards suggest how flourishing this alleyway was in the past.
It is said that operators of the “currency market” had to be approved by the government and the total number was limited to 18, all of which were located in Qianshi Hutong. It can be imagined how prosperous the hutong once was. Today several small courtyards left behind become records of the history.
Datong and Wanfeng were the most famous banking houses in Qianshi Hutong. Today the plaque of Wanfeng Banking House can still be found there. [Photo by Zhang Jing/Qianlong]
During the Republican era, the industry lost government franchise and the demand for precious metal melting and casting declined due to currency reform. Thus operators of the currency exchange market in Qianshi Hutong all turned into banking houses.
The government began to take over currency management after the foundation of the People’s Republic of China and banking houses finally disappeared in the 1950s. The currency exchange hall and banking houses in Qianshi Hutong were then turned into people’s residences. After the former “financial center” stepped down from the stage of history, the alleyway looks especially peaceful and tranquil.
Qianshi Hutong looks especially peaceful and tranquil today. [Photo by Zhang Jing/Qianlong]
Why was the “financial center” so “narrow”?
Qianshi Hutong is only 40 centimeters wide at the narrowest point. [Photo by Zhang Jing/Qianlong]
The narrow sky seen from Qianshi Hutong. [Photoby Zhang Jing/Qianlong]
Why was the prestigious “financial center” of Beijing so “narrow”? A convincible saying goes that the alleyway was planned to be so narrow. Next to prosperous Qianmen Dajie, the precious metal melting and casting industry in Qianshi Hutong dealt with a large amount of money every day. Thus safety became a key issue for Qianshi Hutong, and the alleyway was designed into a narrow hutong rather than a wide one so that it was difficult for thieves to escape quickly with lots of stolen silver and money.