Gulou's FOURLAB café - a hidden haven

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Qianmachang Hutong, a quiet alley just off Jiu Gulou Dajie in Beijing's historic Gulou neighborhood, isn't like most hutong in the area. Compared to the noisy crowds and bustling activity of Nanluoguxiang, Qianmachang offers a more tranquil slice of Beijing life. Tucked a few meters down the alley, not far from the main street, is FOURLAB café, a charming coffee shop and eatery that offers a welcome respite to tourists and locals alike.

Greeting us was a couple who runs the café with two others friends. The four were acting students from Chongqing University who came to Beijing after graduation to pursue their artistic passions. Missing a sense of belonging in the bustling capital, the friends decided to create their own place to call home. FOURLAB was the result, representing the culmination and integration of each of their dreams.Stepping through the café's glass exterior, visitors are greeted with the intimate aroma of fresh-brewed cappuccinos and home-baked pastries. The space more resembles a quaint living room than a café, featuring a household kitchen, antique armchairs and homemade tables. A colorful assortment of sofas round out the area, inviting guests to plop down and relax away from the winter chill. The place is decorated with found musical instruments and antique contraptions. Strike up a conversation with any of the four owners and they'll be happy to introduce each item with a hint of pride. The collection includes a working vintage pianola, a real life 35mm motion picture camera from the 1960s, China's first-issue analog radio, and even a carpenter desk commonly found in Chinese households during the 1980s.

Didi, the wife of the couple, is the resident baker and barista. Though an actress and model by trade, Didi has always loved baking and drawing. The café is a perfect platform for Didi to share her personal dessert creations and artwork with friends and guests. For Didi, acting and modeling are simply ways to earn money, but baking and drawing are a way of life. Besides caring for the café, she recently illustrated a newly published book entitled FOUR Pianists, a piano training guide written by one of her friends.

She told us the siheyuan, or traditional quadrangle courtyard, where the café is located was found and rented in only two days. "Everything happened as if by fate. No hesitation and uncertainty," she recalls.

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