Former residences of celebrities decay in Beijing as renovation projects falter

Source:Global Times Published: 2016/12/12 19:33:40


Doors with peeling paint, crazily arranged electric cables, piles of debris and run-down houses in narrow alleys are all that's left of the former home of a well-known politician and thinker who was executed at the age of 33 after the reform movement he led against the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) court failed.

Located in Beibanjie Hutong in Xicheng district, in the heart of Beijing, and listed as a protected cultural relic at the municipal level in 2011, Tan Sitong's 1,000-plus square meter compound is now occupied by many households.

Its fate is typical of the capital's hundreds of "historical residences," homes which once belonged to some of China's most prominent citizens.

According to a survey jointly conducted by the Cultural and Historical Data Committee of the CPPCC (Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference) Beijing Committee and Beijing Union University's Institute of Beijing Studies, of the 332 historical residences in downtown Beijing, only 80 are in good condition, mostly museums, those used by government organs or those occupied by the descendents of the famous prior occupants. The rest are either lived in by people who have been allocated the housing by the government or have been left derelict by private owners.

Like many other ancient cities, Beijing faces great challenges in preserving what is left of its historic architecture. These shanty relics not only show the poor performance of those tasked with cultural protection, but also highlights the shabby living conditions and insufficient facilities of the capital's oldest urban areas, the Workers' Daily commented in an article published Sunday.

In 2013, the capital announced it would invest 500 billion yuan ($72 billion) over five years to renovate designated "shantytowns" inside its fourth ring road, home to some 700,000 residents of 230,000 households in 527 communities. But as housing prices have soared, the projects have slowed.

"From the angle of urban planning, the protection of historic residences is important to the city's image. Their cultural and historic value can enrich the city's civilization. A city cannot develop without any culture," Huang Shunjiang, associate researcher in urban planning at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), told the Workers' Daily.

A man rides his tricycle past the old residence of Lu Xun, a writer and revolutionary during the Republic of China era, in central Beijing. Photo: CFP

A man rides his tricycle past the old residence of Lu Xun, a writer and revolutionary during the Republic of China era, in central Beijing. Photo: CFP

Serious damage

The former Xiguan Hutong home of Tian Han, who wrote the lyrics to China's national anthem, in Dongcheng district is in a state of disrepair, although it was listed as a protected cultural relic by the district government in 1986.

According to the Cultural Relics Protection Law which was adopted in 1982 and amended in 2015, the owners, public or private, of such houses, are responsible for repairing and maintaining them. Governments can offer some financial support depending on the private owner's financial situation.

These "immovable cultural relics" are not to be damaged, built into something else, added to or demolished, said the law.

However, these rules have not been well implemented in many Beijing neighborhoods. Many historic residences are already unrecognizable, squeezed by small houses built later and their residents.

Shan Jixiang, the Palace Museum's curator and CPPCC member, investigated Tian Han's former home, finding that unauthorized houses were built in the compound after it was officially listed as a protected cultural relic.

Aggrieved at the serious damage, he appealed for it to be urgently protected at the annual two national legislative sessions last year, the Beijing Morning Post reported.

However, no progress has been made.

The residents argue that they have no incentive to pay for repairs to the residence as they do not own it, but merely live there. How these people came to live there is one major barrier for the protection.

During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) when many intellectuals were attacked, many of their houses were confiscated. In 1968 Tian Han died in detention after being labeled a traitor. His house later became a dormitory for the China Theatre Association.

Historical buildings like Tan's former home are still owned by the local housing management department and the residents can live there but can't sell the property. Many residents are eager for the government to relocate them, as this can mean a major payday.

But paying compensation remains a big obstacle for the government, especially as home prices in downtown Beijing can reach 80,000 yuan per square meter.

Sun Jingsong, director of the Xicheng CPPCC Cultural and Historical Data Committee, told China News Service in an interview in September that the district government needs to invest tens of billions of yuan to relocate residents of historic homes and build new homes for them.


Initial victory

The residents of the former Jinjing Hutong home of Shen Jiaben (1840-1913), a well-known jurist at the end of the Qing Dynasty, have recently been relocated by the Xicheng government after repeated appeals by many scholars.

Just like Tan's home, it became public property during the Cultural Revolution and was then allocated to other people. In 1990, Xuanwu district (merged into Xicheng in 2012) listed it as a district-level protected cultural relic to mark Shen's contribution to China's legal system.

However, this didn't prevent it from being transformed and damaged by a growing number of residents. According to the Procuratorial Daily, the number of households packed into the 1,600 square meter compound kept growing and reached 53 before the relocation. The government spent 100 million yuan on relocating these residents, who only had residency rights.

Relocating residents who have property rights, who actually own the building and could sell it if they choose, can cost up to three times as much.

Moreover, many historical residences have not been verified by the authorities yet. The former residence of Xiao Jun (1907-1988), a famous writer who belonged to the left-wing Northeast Authors Group, in Ya'er Hutong, Xicheng, is disused and half of the house has collapsed.

A neighbor said the house's owner previously planned to rebuild it but never did. The cost of reconstruction in a hutong is usually high and landlords have to pay compensation to neighbors to seek their support, the neighbor was quoted as saying by the Workers' Daily.

The privately owned former residence of Wan Rong, the last Empress of China, in Dongcheng's Mao'er Hutong is not much better. "No visitors allowed" is written on its door. Uneven ground, outdated bicycles, piles of bricks and messy electric wires reveal its situation.


Late repair and use

"How to move residents out of the relics is the biggest problem. But the budget required to repair and restore these relics is also a big issue that needs to be solved," Huang said. Due to limited manpower and funds, the authorities have to prioritize buildings with a greater reputation and which could make money as tourist spots.

Hou Xinyi, a CPPCC member and law professor at Tianjin's Nankai University, has proposed turning the former residence of Shen Jiaben into a museum to display the China's legal history.

It's also the wish of Shen Houduo, the great-grandson of Shen Jiaben and professor at the China University of Political Science and Law, who has been closely watching the residence's preservation.

"It must be open to the public in the future, otherwise, it will lose its meaning," stressed the 80-year-old Shen Houduo when he revisited the compound in May, the Legal Daily reported.

Xicheng CPPCC historical head Sun Jingsong said that after moving residents out, the government will try to invest in restoring historical residences and developing them into cultural sites.

CASS urban planner Huang Shunjiang argues private investment is key. "The government may invite some local enterprises to get involved, who can help pass on the cultural value of these relics and at the same time promote their brand. This is a win-win result," Huang told the Workers' Daily.

The resurrection of the Pagoda of Monk Wansong in Xicheng, is an example of how this could work. The brick pagoda, originally built during the mid 13th century was verified as a protected cultural relic by Beijing in 1995.

In 2007, the government started to renovate the area, moving 10 households and eight businesses, removing buildings that covered the 800 square meters around the pagoda.

After it was repaired and reinforced, the city transferred management of the building to Cui Yong, owner of the Zhengyang Bookstore. He then turned it into a library, saying that he hopes that "book lovers can enjoy reading at the foot of the oldest brick pagoda in the oldest hutong in Beijing and the place can become a brand new cultural landmark."


Many academics have advised the government to rent or sell the property rights of some historic buildings to private owners, and encourage them to use and preserve the residences without changing the original structure and features.

But Feng Jicai, a top political advisor and honorary president of the Chinese Folk Literature and Art Association, believes the most pressing issue for Beijing is to fully map out all of its historic residences. Before studying conservation measures, all the capital's immovable relics should be evaluated by experts.

"Some residences have already been demolished. No matter how we rebuild them, they can never recover. The life of cultural relics only comes around once," he was quoted as saying by the Shanghai-based Xinmin Evening News.

"To protect them, a concrete timetable should be made. We shouldn't act the way we did with the old courtyard houses and let them be eroded by time and nature," Feng noted.

Beijing launched a city-wide survey in 2012. The results showed that there were a total of 3,840 immovable cultural relics in the city, but more than 73 percent of them had not yet been officially verified, according to a 2014 report by the Beijing Times.

Global Times

Newspaper headline: Home of history

Posted in: IN-DEPTH

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