The World of Chinese - - Editor’s Letter - BY HATTY LIU

Thou­sands of build­ings across China with his­toric and cul­tural value are cur­rently in a state of ne­glect due to past is­sues over prop­erty rights and bu­reau­cratic wran­gling. TWOC goes on-site to see whether this his­tor­i­cal hang­over can be cured

Nor­man Lee, a con­cert pi­anist from Hong Kong, once spent 25 years try­ing to move house. In 1991, on hear­ing that the prov­ince of Guang­dong was invit­ing over­seas Chi­nese to re­turn and in­vest in the main­land by of­fer­ing them the pos­si­bil­ity of gain­ing back their ances­tral prop­er­ties, Lee’s fa­ther ar­rived in the port city of Shan­tou to claim Xiang Yuan, the Euro­pean villa that Lee’s grand­fa­ther built in 1928 af­ter mak­ing his for­tune in busi­ness.

There was just one prob­lem: An en­ter­prise called the Chousha Firm had been us­ing the house for the last 43 years, first to run an em­broi­dery fac­tory, then to ac­com­mo­date the Shan­tou Dis­ci­plinary Com­mit­tee, then still later, to lease to busi­nesses rang­ing from a preschool to a cafe. And the law wasn’t ex­actly clear on how to get them out.

In the years that fol­lowed, the Lee fam­ily’s strug­gle to evict the com­pany would in­volve at­tempted law­suits, ap­peals to var­i­ous pro­vin­cial and mu­nic­i­pal bureaus, and fi­nally, a pay­ment out of the fam­ily's on pocket of 1.2 mil­lion RMB to the com­pany and 200,000 to the then-ten­ants, which they ac­cepted as com­pen­sa­tion for mov­ing out in 2015. It was not un­til then that Lee, who had only ever seen pic­tures of the fam­ily home, had his mem­o­rable first glimpse of Xiang Yuan.

“It was a junk­yard; not a sin­gle piece of fur­ni­ture was left in the house,” he told TWOC. “They had carved up the rooms, took out doors and walls… they re­placed the mar­ble tiles from Italy and Spain… the chan­de­liers were stolen… and the gov­ern­ment did not feel it was their re­spon­si­bil­ity to fix it.” By then, ac­cord­ing to a lo­cal TV re­port, Shan­tou na­tives them­selves had for­got­ten who re­ally owned the well-known city land­mark, falsely be­liev­ing it to be an old bank. Lee would spend the next two years ren­o­vat­ing the house on his own dime, be­fore re­open­ing Xiang Yuan in early 2017 as a pi­ano mu­seum and cul­tural cen­ter.

Yet given China’s fa­mously fraught re­la­tion­ship with its his­tor­i­cal mon­u­ments, the Lee fam­ily may have achieved the clos­est thing to a happy end­ing. By now, the story of China’s de­mo­li­tion-prone streets and court­yard homes is well known, but homes like Xiang Yuan usu­ally stand apart from the de­crepit old neigh­bor­hoods bull­dozed for ur­ban devel­op­ment. As places of ar­chi­tec­tural dis­tinc­tion or his­tor­i­cal note, they are el­i­gi­ble to be de­clared “cul­tural relic con­ser­va­tion units” (文物保护单位) by state cul­tural her­itage bureaus, a priv­i­lege they share with struc­tures such as tem­ples, old

gov­ern­ment build­ings and for­eign consulates, for­mer im­pe­rial dwellings, and the homes of fa­mous his­tor­i­cal fig­ures. They are tech­ni­cally pro­tected from out­right de­mo­li­tion—if dif­fer­ent po­lit­i­cal chal­lenges don’t con­demn them first.

In 2015, Kong Fanzhi, the jus­tre­tired di­rec­tor of the Bei­jing Mu­nic­i­pal Ad­min­is­tra­tion of Cul­tural Her­itage, made a bid to have “evic­tion of cul­tural relics” in­cluded in China’s 13th Five-year Plan (2016 – 2020). Kong was a long­time critic of the “un­rea­son­able” use of Bei­jing’s pro­tected land­marks by en­ter­prises and state-owned work units, and at the time of his pro­posal, the Bei­jing Gar­den­ing and Green­ing Bu­reau had just re­leased a re­port that more than 100 of Bei­jing’s 423 still-ex­ist­ing his­tor­i­cal gar­dens had been re­pur­posed by var­i­ous or­ga­ni­za­tions as makeshift of­fices or dor­mi­to­ries and were not open to the pub­lic, in ad­di­tion to all but one of more than 40 “princely man­sions” (王府) in the city, for­mer homes to im­pe­rial broth­ers and un­cles.

The her­itage ad­min­is­tra­tion had last es­ti­mated, in 2010, that 40 per­cent of Bei­jing’s con­ser­va­tion units were oc­cu­pied, an im­prove­ment over 2005, when the fig­ure had been close to 60 per­cent and the city’s gov­ern­ment was just wak­ing up to the prob­lem. In the decades be­fore, peo­ple across the city had been dry­ing laun­dry on cen­turiesold pil­lars, fry­ing rice be­side price­less pago­das, re­plac­ing Bud­dhist al­tars with ma­chin­ery, and—in the typ­i­cal se­cre­tive fash­ion of Chi­nese work units ( dan­wei)— get­ting guards to chase out cu­ri­ous passersby who’d come to peek at a land­mark of his­tor­i­cal value. “Sure, this is a cul­tural relic con­ser­va­tion unit, but there are no relics in­side,” staff at one un­named his­toric site told Hong Kong’s Sing Tao Daily in 2005.

It was around this time that Kong joined with var­i­ous other gov­ern­ment de­part­ments to push for the com­plete re­moval of oc­cu­py­ing or­ga­ni­za­tions from Bei­jing’s her­itage units, in the in­ter­est of pro­tect­ing these land­marks from de­cay. In 2015, Kong told re­porters at a press con­fer­ence that 80 per­cent of na­tional-level con­ser­va­tion units have com­pleted evic­tions. Forty per­cent of mu­nic­i­pal-level con­ser­va­tion units still had yet to, and there were “even more” at the district and county lev­els. Out­side Bei­jing, no city or prov­ince’s her­itage bu­reau ap­pear to have kept as close a tally of oc­cu­pied units; in cities like the Lee fam­ily’s Shan­tou, where sig­nif­i­cant por­tions of the pop­u­la­tion em­i­grated in the last cen­tury, their num­ber is un­told.

The city’s her­itage ad­min­is­tra­tion re­fused TWOC’S re­quest for com­ment on their progress or fur­ther dead­lines. How­ever, Bei­jing’s Xicheng and Dongcheng dis­tricts of have set a goal to carry out evic­tions from a com­bined 32 con­ser­va­tion units this fall. A va­ri­ety of high-pro­file evic­tions in re­cent years—a high-end lounge from in­side the Songzhu and Zhizhu tem­ples, a whole­sale mar­ket from the old Na­tional Mon­go­lian and Ti­betan School site in Xi­dan—have boosted the pub­lic’s aware­ness of the city’s project.

Ev­i­dently, re­mov­ing “un­rea­son­able” oc­cu­piers is eas­ier said than done. The main is­sue, as Kong has de­scribed it in many in­ter­views, is “a prob­lem left­over from his­tory.” This is a eu­phemism that can be ap­plied to host of is­sues per­ceived to have stemmed from the dra­matic up­heavals of Chi­nese so­ci­ety over the last cen­tury—and the dis­ar­rayed, of­ten con­tra­dic­tory sets of reg­u­la­tions and val­ues left be­hind.

The oc­cu­pa­tion of pro­tected land­marks first be­gan in the tu­mult of wars be­tween the 1920s and 1940s. In the case of Xiang Yuan, as with many homes of di­as­pora Chi­nese in China’s coastal com­mu­ni­ties, the own­ers had moved to Hong Kong in the 1920s. They’d agreed to lease the house to the tex­tile firm in the 1930s—but as the fam­ily did not re­turn to Shan­tou for an­other 50 years, the firm had sim­ply stayed put.

But while po­lit­i­cal in­sta­bil­ity had made these land­marks avail­able, po­lit­i­cal unity—in par­tic­u­lar, the de­mands of na­tional re­ju­ve­na­tion af­ter decades of war and rev­o­lu­tion—was what ac­cel­er­ated their takeover. In the early years of the PRC, nu­mer­ous dan­wei— schools, mil­i­tary or­gans, fac­to­ries, re­search in­sti­tutes, even work­ers’ recre­ational “palaces”— were be­ing es­tab­lished across China to fa­cil­i­tate the top-down, mod­ern Lenin­ist state. Fa­cil­i­ties were needed to house work­ers and serve their op­er­a­tions; aban­doned build­ings were a ready-made so­lu­tion for a new na­tion strapped for money and time. Even the cen­tral gov­ern­ment opted to move into the old im­pe­rial gar­dens be­side the old palace—de­spite Chair­man Mao’s

In 2014, Bei­jing News re­porters vis­ited a com­plex for­merly known as Tieshizi Hu­tong, home to a dis­tinc­tive, gray-bricked Baroque man­sion that was briefly China’s seat of gov­ern­ment un­der the war­lord Duan Qirui, Pro­vi­sional Chief Ex­ec­u­tive of the Repub­lic of China from 1924 to 1926 (the home’s other lau­rels in­clude be­ing the army and navy head­quar­ters of the Qing em­pire, and site of the 1926 “March 18 In­ci­dent,” when anti-ja­panese pro­test­ers were killed by Duan’s forces). This sto­ried ed­i­fice and its three an­nex build­ings, wood struc­tures also built with Euro­pean in­flu­ence, were al­lo­cated to Ren­min Univer­sity in 1949 as of­fices and staff dor­mi­to­ries.

But fol­low­ing the re­lo­ca­tion of the school’s In­sti­tute of Qing His­tory to the new cam­pus in north­west­ern Bei­jing, the main build­ing has stood empty, and the cur­rent an­nex res­i­dents are loosely as­so­ci­ated with the univer­sity at best. The com­plex was also, con­cluded Bei­jing News, in a state of “par­tial ruin”—the ar­chi­tec­tural de­tails long eroded by ten­ants seal­ing the clois­ter-like ex­te­rior and cook­ing in the hall­ways.

Yet life in­side these de­com­pos­ing man­sions goes on, a bizarre mix of squalor and faded splen­dor. Un­der the vaulted en­trance of one of the an­nexes, an elderly res­i­dent sur­named Wang, the “mother-in-law of the daugh­ter of for­mer univer­sity em­ploy­ees,” is chop­ping veg­eta­bles on the aged stone steps when TWOC vis­its; a pair of shoes are dan­gling to dry from the colon­nade. “It’s re­ally quite ter­ri­ble here,” she says con­ver­sa­tion­ally, point­ing out thin walls, a foot­ball-sized hole in the arch­way, and mould­ings worn smooth from ne­glect. These res­i­dents live un­der some of the high­est ceil­ings and most in­tri­cate fa­cades in the city—but also make do with com­mu­nal toi­lets, makeshift kitchens, and sag­ging (if ar­chi­tec­turally ac­claimed) beams.

The res­i­dents, on their part, are un­happy with their rep­u­ta­tion as re­lichat­ing troglodytes. “We don’t want to live here any­more, ei­ther; no­body wants to see cul­tural relics de­stroyed,” an un­named res­i­dent told the Bei­jing News. “I want to pro­tect relics too, but can’t,” Wang’s neigh­bor Zhang tells TWOC cryp­ti­cally. Wang trans­lates: “Be­cause it’s a con­ser­va­tion unit, we need per­mis­sion from the her­itage ad­min­is­tra­tion to do any­thing to the build­ing… even to fix it; they have rules about how it should look and what ma­te­ri­als to use.”

Kong, how­ever, has told jour­nal­ists that he had lit­tle real power to stop any dan­wei from mak­ing mod­i­fi­ca­tions to con­ser­va­tion units, and that the fi­nan­cial penal­ties are too small to de­ter them even from tear­ing down the build­ing if they wished. The her­itage ad­min­is­tra­tion’s hands, he said, are also tied by bu­reau­cracy. “The ten­ants are dan­wei, a col­lec­tive; if they say ‘we have no money for re­pairs,’ there’s no way to hold any­one ac­count­able,” he told the Bei­jing News. It’s also hard to de­ter­mine whom the prop­erty should re­vert to. “Old build­ings may be­long to the cen­tral gov­ern­ment, to the city, to a district or county, or to an in­di­vid­ual… [con­ser­va­tion] isn’t some­thing a sin­gle de­part­ment can han­dle.”

In­stead, gov­ern­ment bureaus and other or­ga­ni­za­tions wish­ing to evict the dan­wei have typ­i­cally had to re­sort to the same tac­tics as the Lees: com­pen­sa­tion. This is the main rea­son why evic­tion tar­gets are so hard to meet; ac­cord­ing to Kong, the her­itage ad­min­is­tra­tion’s an­nual con­ser­va­tion bud­get of 1 bil­lion RMB is laugh­ably small for pay­ing dan­wei to give up their prime real es­tate in the city cen­ter—cash cows they’d been


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