An an­cient neigh­bor­hood in­Hangzhou strives to bal­ance tra­di­tion and moder­nity. Yang Feiyue re­ports.

China Daily (USA) - - LIFE - Con­tact the writer at yangfeiyue@chi­

It is a dis­tinc­tive clus­ter of low-slung his­tor­i­cal build­ings, tucked away from the hus­tle and bus­tle of theWest Lake area in Hangzhou, Zhe­jiang’s pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal.

Min­utes ago, I was wan­der­ing around the com­mer­cial hot spots nearby, where sky­scrapers wear­ing Star­bucks, Gap and Ap­ple lo­gos hug the streets. Now, two-story struc­tures of black bricks with dark wooden doors framed in stone have sprung up be­fore me. It’s quiet. Th­ese cen­turies-old build­ings stretch neatly in all di­rec­tions of the Sixinfang com­mu­nity in Shangcheng dis­trict.

Lou Youm­ing is pre­par­ing lunch in a tiny, shabby kitchen right at the en­trance of one build­ing as I ex­plore the net­work of lanes. She steps out from the kitchen when I say hello.

The 71-year-old looks hale and hearty. Lou has lived here all her life.

She in­vites me in and points to a wooden lad­der on the right as we pass the kitchen.

“Other house­holds take the lad­der to get up­stairs,” she says.

Her place was right on the ground floor — a long, dim, nar­row lane leads to a roughly 20-square-me­ter room where she now lives with her hus­band. A fridge, a TV and a few pieces of old-fash­ioned fur­ni­ture are crammed into the room.

Three house­holds are liv­ing in the build­ing, and they share the same door.

The old cou­ple en­joys their daily rou­tine. They go to the lake twice a day. It’s a five-minute walk away.

“We’ll nor­mally get up at 5 in the morn­ing and walk around the lake for two hours,” Lou says, smil­ing. They’ll do it again late in the day. Sixinfang hosts roughly 220 house­holds, and­many res­i­dents, like Lou, have lived there for a long time.

The site was a min­istry gar­ri­son dur­ing the Qing Dy­nasty (16441911), be­fore it was pur­chased by Chen Xin­gong, a rich mer­chant, in the 1920s.

Chen re­mod­eled the place af­ter the fash­ion of Shang­hai’s shiku­men, the stone-framed gate­houses, which in­te­grated someWestern el­e­ments.

Chen thus be­came one of the first re­al­tors in­Hangzhou.

The whole com­mu­nity cov­ers an area of about 10,000 square me­ters. In its hey­day, it housed the rich and pow­er­ful.

Over time, Sixinfang’s in­hab­i­tants changed from the rich to or­di­nary res­i­dents.

Things took a down­turn af­ter the 1980s.

“The planned econ­omy shifted to­ward a mar­ket econ­omy, and high build­ings be­gan to emerge all around,” says Lou.

“Peo­ple work­ing in those build­ings needed to have lunch, so many small restau­rants opened.”

That was the start of a prob­lem. Most of those cater­ing busi­nesses were il­le­gal and poorly equipped, pro­duc­ing sewage flows as well as a suf­fo­cat­ing cook­ing smoke that shrouded the whole neigh­bor­hood.

“We closed our win­dows and Above, right and bot­tom right: doors and didn’t dare to come out,” Lou re­calls.

She used to get up early to hang out her washed clothes, then take themin­side be­fore noon­when­those restau­rants started cook­ing, and hang them out again af­ter the lunch rush.

Over time, the build­ings de­vel­oped leaky roofs, blocked sewage sys­tems and ter­mites af­ter weath­er­ing long years.

Things only be­gan to looku­pearly last year. The lo­cal au­thor­ity set up mon­i­tor­ing out­posts in the com­mu­nity to en­sure those restau­rants won’t pop up again.

“The prob­lem was per­sis­tent be­cause restau­rant own­ers would re­open their busi­ness once we left,” saysWangWeishi, a pub­lic­ity of­fi­cer with Sixinfang.

The au­thor­ity has also re­stored the neigh­bor­hood, rewired the elec­tri­cal net­work and built san­i­tary re­strooms, Wang adds.

Ex­te­rior im­prove­ments are ba­si­cally fin­ished, and in­te­rior work on the build­ings will be­gin later this year.

The idea is to re­store Sixinfang’s charm and weave it back into Hangzhou’s his­tor­i­cal and cul­tural fab­ric, Wang ex­plains.

Wang says help from cul­tural ex­perts may be needed.

Now, a book­store ex­hibit­ing works by prom­i­nent lo­cals has opened, along with a free mu­seum.

Lou says that the gov­ern­ment may of­fer res­i­dents two choices soon: con­tinue to live there and have their homes’ in­te­ri­ors up­graded or take a gov­ern­ment of­fer to re­lo­cate.

“I’m con­sid­er­ing tak­ing the new place, since it would be newand big­ger,” Lou says.

The down­side for her is that the new hous­ing is a bit far­ther away from her belovedWest Lake.

“It’s so beau­ti­ful and all nat­u­ral, with blue skies and white clouds,” she says.

“I’ll visit it more now, since I might not be able to see it ev­ery day in the fu­ture.”

The Sixinfang com­mu­nity in Hangzhou hosts cen­turies-old black-brick struc­tures. A restora­tion project last year has helped the neigh­bor­hood re­tain its his­tor­i­cal and cul­tural glamor.

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