THE NEW CHINESE VILLAGE
How China’s Songyang county has gone from a rural backwater to a seriously cool heritage hotspot
midday in Youtian, a close- knit cluster of houses surrounded by tea plantations in the hills of Zhejiang province, and Chen Yingqiang is drawing nails out of an ancient beam with a claw hammer. ‘ Some are as easy as peeling a banana,’ says Chen, a gnarled 62-year- old who has known no trade but village carpenter. ‘Others are like…’ The sentence ends with language we won’t print here.
Once the nails are out, the beam will be incorporated in the house that Chen is restoring, one of several in Youtian that are part of China’s burgeoning rural renaissance. The village is among dozens in Songyang county in which centuriesold houses, rather than being ground to dust beneath a bulldozer blade, are being given a new lease of life that’s come about through local pride and hefty handouts from heritage organisations. Transmogrified into homestays, restaurants and cafes, what was formerly peasant accommodation has become a hip bolthole for professional millennials in search of a bucolic escape. And while restoring old buildings is by no means a novel idea in China, the current trend is both wide-ranging and very much a grass roots initiative.
‘ The only way of life around here used to be agriculture,’ says Bao Guohua, who now runs a one-man taxi service to Youtian and other ‘renaissance’ villages. ‘ Then, over the past few years officials came to suggest we should start restoring our houses. At first we thought they were barmy – we were born in them, a lot were falling down. Why would anyone want to come and stay here? A lot of villagers would be only too glad to get away from here and go and live in the city. But then, slowly at first, the idea started to catch on.’
More than a dozen houses in Youtian have been given a full makeover. Most are homestays, one is a cafe, while No. 17 – formerly a cowshed belonging to several families – has become a restaurant.
Much of the financing comes from the Beijing- based China Foundation for Cultural Heritage Conservation, which has earmarked RMB 40 million for restoration in about 50 villages in Songyang county. The owners contribute RMB 5,000 per bedroom, which has to be paid before work begins, while the foundation takes care of the other parts of the house. Once complete, nightly rentals start at RMB 580 per double room, while an entire house with a 10- metre infinity swimming pool costs RMB 1,980. Given the sums involved, Youtian’s residents have been quick to appreciate the project’s commercial advantages.
‘It was sad to see our old houses falling down,’ says Ye Lianhan, who heads up Youtian’s village committee. ‘ They belonged to our ancestors, but we simply
WE WERE BORN IN THESE HOUSES; A LOT WERE FALLING DOWN. WE THOUGHT, WHY WOULD ANYONE WANT TO COME AND STAY HERE?
didn’t have the cash to put them right. That’s all changed now, and we can make a bit of money on top of what comes in from selling tea.’
For foreigners – and around these parts anyone coming from outside Songyang is labelled thus – somewhere like Youtian is the perfect spot to experience the rural renaissance first hand. Viewed from a distance, the village could easily be used as a backdrop in a costume drama set in the Ming dynasty. The roofs are capped with layers of curved black tiles, and the walls are a muddy ochre. Steep steps and winding alleyways thread their way up and down the hillside, and the unrestored houses remain an intriguing amalgam of semi-fortress, warehouse and home for humans and
Something new The Songyang Damushan Tea House (right) is a modern addition to the rural area; Papa’s Hostel (bottom right) uses semitransparent dividers; natural materials are the design elements of choice at Songyang’s refurbished houses (opposite)