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
PEOPLE HAD BEEN DRYING LAUNDRY ON OLD PILLARS, FRYING RICE BESIDE PRICELESS PAGODAS, REPLACING BUDDHIST ALTARS WITH MACHINERY