Project aims to pre­serve build­ings not el­i­gi­ble for official pro­tec­tion

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - CHINA -

Wuyuan, a county in East China’s Jiangxi prov­ince renowned for its pas­toral beauty, has found a novel way to breathe new life into cen­turies-old houses that have fallen into dis­re­pair.

Many of the build­ings’ own­ers lack the funds or skills to do the work them­selves, so out­siders are be­ing en­cour­aged to “adopt” the run­down houses and have them ren­o­vated — even turn­ing some into stylish bou­tique ho­tels, sought af­ter by tourists from across the coun­try.

The project aims to com­ple­ment a re­cent build­ing pro­tec­tion drive, which listed key build­ings that needed to be main­tained. The build­ings up for adop­tion did not make it onto the official list be­cause they are not old enough to be el­i­gi­ble for govern­ment-funded pro­tec­tion.

Wu Zhix­uan, 41, was the first out­sider to rent and ren­o­vate a house in Wuyuan. He turned it into a vil­lage inn.

When Wu first vis­ited Wuyuan in 2008, he said he was taken aback by the abun­dance of Hui-style ar­chi­tec­ture, which can be seen across East China in stately homes, an­ces­tral halls and me­mo­rial arch­ways.

Many houses in the county fea­ture the gray tiles and white walls as­so­ci­ated with the tech­nique, but are in var­i­ous states of dis­re­pair.

Be­cause he has a de­gree in civil engi­neer­ing, Wu felt it was his civic duty to stay and do some­thing, he said.

So he rented the 500square-me­ter house Jiusi Hall in Luoyun vil­lage on a 40-year lease for 800,000 yuan ($118,000). Built in 1902, it fea- tures two halls, a kitchen and a back­yard.

“It looked good but was in a bad state of re­pair,” said Wu, re­call­ing that the sec­ond floor of the house had col­lapsed when his friend tried to film up there.

“My friend was so cool about it, he just held on to a beam,” he said, laugh­ing.

In 2011, Jiusi Hall opened to the pub­lic af­ter a 1 mil­lion yuan re­fur­bish­ment that pre­served many of the orig­i­nal fea­tures, in­clud­ing the wooden doors, brick walls, paved court­yard and el­e­gant wood carv­ings.

Wu added mod­ern ameni­ties to the house, such as sound­proof­ing, air con­di­tion­ing and mod­ern bath­rooms.

Lit­tle did he know that his ren­o­va­tion project would be the start of a house-adop­tion craze.

Wuyuan has more than 4,000 an­cient houses, many built over a pe­riod of 600 years, up to the end of the Qing Dy­nasty (1644-1911).

So far, more than 110 of the county’s houses have been rented or pur­chased by out­siders.

The houses up for adop­tion are not cov­ered by govern­ment pro­tec­tion grants, and re­pair and main­te­nance fees for each dwelling can reach mil­lions of yuan.

More­over, it is dif­fi­cult to find tra­di­tional crafts­men to ren­o­vate them. “My heart was bro­ken when I saw these ex­cel­lent ex­am­ples of ar­chi­tec­ture dis­ap­pear­ing,” said Yu Youhong, a wood­carver.

Ed­ward Gawne, 32, was the first for­eigner to pur­chase a build­ing in Wuyuan. With the help of Yu, he has just com­plet- ed ren­o­va­tions on a Qing Dy­nasty house.

The 600-sq-m com­pound in Yan­cun vil­lage was built more than 200 years ago. When the Bri­ton first saw it, many of the build­ing’s wooden carv­ings were dam­aged and its struc­tural in­tegrity needed at­ten­tion.

Gawne, who comes from Lon­don, worked along­side his Chi­nese wife, Liao Minxin, to turn the house into a fam­ily inn. “We re­stored it and dec­o­rated the rooms with mod­ern el­e­ments to make it com­fort­able. We also have a bar and a Bri­tish-style gar­den,” Liao said.

The house-adop­tion wave has also re­sulted in a tourism boom for Wuyuan, which cov­ers an area of around 3,000 square kilo­me­ters. Nowa­days, more than 70,000 of the 360,000 peo­ple who live there are em­ployed in the tourism in­dus­try.

Wuyuan has over 570 fam­ily inns. Crit­ics have ar­gued that com­mer­cial­iz­ing an­cient vil­lages up­sets the tran­quil­lity of the lo­cal area.

But ac­cord­ing to Wuyuan pub­lic­ity depart­ment, ma­jor struc­tural changes are not al­lowed. The county govern­ment has drafted a reg­u­la­tion that is un­der re­view, it said.

“Pri­vate in­vest­ment is be­ing used to ren­o­vate and pre­serve those an­cient houses that are not classed as ‘cul­tural relics’ but are his­tor­i­cally valu­able nonethe­less,” said Cao Guoxin, deputy di­rec­tor of Jiangxi Univer­sity of Fi­nance and Eco­nomics’ tourism devel­op­ment re­search cen­ter.

As for Wu, he now rents more than 10 an­cient houses across Wuyuan and Huang­shan in An­hui prov­ince.

But un­like in­vestors in neigh­bor­ing Zhe­jiang prov­ince, who of­ten buy houses to re­lo­cate them to other places, Wu is adamant that the his­tor­i­cal build­ings should re­main in their orig­i­nal set­ting.

“They only care about the aes­thet­ics,” he said. “Pro­tec­tion is not only about ren­o­va­tion but preser­va­tion of the sto­ries be­hind the house and the fam­i­lies who came be­fore us.”

HU DUNHUANG / FOR CHINA DAILY

Wuyuan in East China’s Jiangxi prov­ince has more than 4,000 an­cient houses, many built over a pe­riod of 600 years.

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