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One beam at a time

Wealthy businessmen have put a new twist on the preservation of historic buildings by purchasing a property in one place, disassembling it and rebuilding it elsewhere. But is this true preservation Nancy Zhang reports.

Behind bustling Hongzhong Road in Shanghai's Hongkou District, a tiny street leads to an unexpected treasure. Encased in a modern concrete shell is an ornate Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) house, its wooden beams and doors heavy with the weight of history.

Unlike many tourist attractions around China, this is not a new imitation of an "old" building and the 130-year-old house doesn't "belong" in Shanghai. Instead it has been shipped piece by piece from its native Huizhou in Anhui Province and reconstructed in Shanghai for long-term preservation by wealthy businessman Li Jianzhong.

Li is one of a handful of wealthy private collectors who are taking up the slack on historic preservation.

Hailed as trail-blazing saviors of cultural heritage by the Chinese media, collectors such as Li, a native of Guizhou Province, and Chinese-Canadian billionaire Huang Xiuzhi are seen as much needed philanthropists.

"The people who live there and the villages don't have the means to preserve the building," says Li. "In another decade the building would be so degraded as to make preservation meaningless. So it's a relatively better solution for a private collector to step in."

Li, 52, made his fortune in the interior design and restaurant businesses, and has traveled the country in pursuit of his passion for ancient architecture. He has bought more than 200 properties. Many are from remote villages at least "30 minutes by motorbike off any roads."

Buildings collected have dated back to mid-Ming Dynasty (1368?1644) with examples from places as diverse as Fujian, Jiangxi and Zhejiang provinces. Most of these are now stored in categorized pieces in a Pudong warehouse, waiting to be reassembled.

The house off Hongzhong Road is one of Li's few completed reconstructions and acts as a pioneering model. It's now called "1877" after the year it was originally built.

Even more than antiques, collecting historic architecture is a rich person's game. And Li is one of a growing number of self-made Chinese who fit this description.

He started in the early 1990s designing interiors for hotels and shopping malls. In 2001, he embarked on a second business - a chain of popular Guizhou cuisine restaurants in Shanghai. Through early contact with interior design, Li fostered a taste for artistic items and started collecting antiques. It was only five years ago that he began collecting entire properties.

Moving a property

Leads to good properties come to Li through his many contacts in the industry. If he likes the sound of a place, he goes to inspect it and negotiates prices with local residents and authorities. He remembers the first property he bought in Anhui Province was a bargain at just 200,000 yuan (US$29,247). Residents in old buildings were the poorest in the village and they were eager to sell in order to move to new apartments.

But for larger properties, prices can fetch up to 1 million yuan - not including the cost of dismantling and moving the property, which can double the expense and take up to six months. On average, the cost of moving a property is 300,000 yuan.

Reconstruction takes more time and funds. Building 1877 took 18 months to reconstruct.

"To be honest, this is probably an endeavor for a billionaire and I don't have that much money," says Li. "But I feel my fate is linked to these houses, I never tire of them. For example I feel as if hand-carved items contain the human soul. As long as I have money I will continue."

Through the whole process Li pays with his private funds - there has been no assistance from the government. Li has even set up his own 200-employee "company" called to manage what can only be called a hobby as he makes no profit.

Li's team includes preservation experts who have worked on high- profile projects such as Beijing's Forbidden Palace. Legislation exists to regulate the private collection of Chinese antiques - including historic architecture.

Owners have huge leeway over what to do with their property, which does not always bode well for pure preservation.

Li, for example, believes in updating his historic buildings for a modern audience. To this end, 1877 has become a fashionable event space for the glitterati of Shanghai's cultural scene.

A quaint antique-looking birdcage dangling from the ceiling hides a movie projector. At the push of a remote control a huge screen lights up with a documentary about the renovation process interspersed with a string of directors, actors and artists, who have been guests at 1877, praising the project.

It seems a little innocuous in the ancient space, but modernizations don't end here.

Eschewing lack of light and the "heavy atmosphere" of traditional buildings, Li opened a large clear glass window in one of the walls showcasing bamboo groves outside, skylights open up the ceiling and multi-colored lighting has also been installed throughout.

The interior has been decorated entirely to Li's taste, with various pieces of antiques collected over the years, not period or site specific to the Qing Dynasty, Hui-style house. A Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) stone Buddha smiles bemused at the Western-style leather sofas just opposite, and upstairs has been remodeled after 1930s Shanghai.

Jenny Dou, Li's wife and partner in renovations, says they want 1877 to appeal to more people.

"It's less meaningful if we just restore an old building - we want to combine elements of the modern and fashionable," she says. "The lighting and colors appeal to a wider range of people, especially young people and city people."

But moving historic buildings from their original location is fraught with cultural dangers, including a loss of community context and the way of life the building represented.

Yet this practice has become popular among wealthy collectors following the example set by famed collector Huang Xiuzhi.

Huang - who was also the subject of a German TV documentary - moved old Shanghai villas, temples and other buildings to a 20-hectare plot of land in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province.

For Li, moving buildings to Shanghai represents convenience and more accessibility to admirers. Dou says the 1877 house has become a point of pride for the district government. Li adds that it's something of a tourist attraction for visiting dignitaries, "like Xintiandi."

Li points out that not all historic architecture can be canonized in a museum. With the cost of preservation much higher than rebuilding, there is a case for making historic architecture suitable for modern use and even economically viable. Attracting admirers, particularly high-profile celebrities, raises awareness.

To this end, Li has ambitious plans for the future. He has scoped out a huge plot of land in Pudong to accommodate reconstructions of all the old buildings they currently have in storage. It would be a kind of theme park of ancient Chinese architecture from all kinds of areas and all kinds of periods. The vision includes transforming these into commercial hotels and luxury spas, plus an area for cultural exhibitions.

It's not a perfect solution - but then relying on private collectors to save a nation's cultural heritage is a solution of last resort. It's a sign of the current state of affairs that for now this solution is a relatively better one.

As Dou says, "If we didn't do this the buildings disappear, and so do their stories."


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