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November 7, 2010

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Transplanting historic houses

"IF I make up my mind to do something, then I will do it ... All of this you see is a work using 30 years of experience, 10 years of planning and four years of actual construction."

People called him crazy, he was definitely odd, but farmer Weng Lifang didn't care: He had big dreams and big plans. He still does.

When he was a boy he was fascinated by the "old stuff" of China's history, and 30 years ago when China again welcomed private enterprise, he was quick to start selling antiques, first spreading his wares on a blanket on a sidewalk in Shanghai.

Today Weng is not only a successful businessman in Ningbo, Zhejiang Province, he is also the owner of an antiques museum and has bit by bit amassed what amounts to a village of 16 buildings from the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. Scouting the Yangtze River Delta region, he negotiated purchase and with a team disassembled each and every building, numbered the parts, carted them off and reassembled them - a monumental task.

Weng's 18,000-square-meter museum of old buildings near a scenic pond opened to the public on September 1.

There are meticulously restored residences, halls, pavilions, corridors, and other structures covering 6,000 square meters. It also includes traditional gardens, courtyards and carefully tended lawns. Visitors may forget they are in the 21st century.

One set of rooms has been furnished with period furniture, lamps, vases, incense burners and other items, giving a sense of everyday life for well-off people of the time. Other rooms display 14 pieces of elaborate curtained beds with marble panels and bed sets from the late Qing and early Republic of China (1912-1930) periods.

The so-called Dowry Hall contains properties given by women to their husband's family at the time of marriage. These include palanquins, camphor wood chests, rosewood furniture, ceramics, textiles and many other gifts.

All of this is located in Minle Village, Yinzhou District of Ningbo, around two hours' drive from Shanghai. It's rather remote and hard to get to, but worth the effort and Weng is a friendly and engaging host - his open personality, easy manner and gift of gab no doubt helped him in talking other peasants, and many other people, out of the "old stuff" lying around.

Weng's museum has already attracted more than 23,000 visitors, sometimes as many as 1,000 people a day.

"If I make up my mind to do something, then I will do it," Weng said amiably as he puffed on a cigar, a cup of tea at hand in an exhibition hall. Despite his renown and wealth, he dressed simply in old jeans.

He admits few people thought he could do it, that he was a bit crazy in his big dream of collecting China's past.

"All of this you see is a work using 30 years of experience, 10 years of planning and four years of actual construction."

It's hard to realize that this chatty and knowledgeable museum curator is, or was, a peasant who grew up on a farm. It's not every day that a farmer becomes an antiques collector. But Weng's is a story about what one man can achieve with determination, luck and the right conditions.

And, of course, the time was right. Then-leader Deng Xiaoping launched China's reform and opening-up movement in 1978, and encouraged entrepreneurs who once had been called vile capitalists and poisonous weeds.

Weng was one of the very first, and he took advantage of the havoc of the just-ended "cultural revolution" (1966-76) when antiques - and sometimes anything that dated before 1949 - were smashed and those who owned them punished. The relics of all kinds were considered evidence of the "four olds" that had to be eradicated: old customs, old culture, old habits and old ideas. Thus millions of people grew up knowing nothing of the value of items that had been cast aside, such as a vase or a piece of furniture piled with rubbish in a barn.

"At that time, people had little awareness of the value of old wares," said Weng who seriously took up collecting as a young man. He used to ride around the neighborhood on his bicycle, and out to distant farms, to see what was available and "try to use the least amount of money to get the most valuable things." Sometimes he had to use his lunch money, but those were the days when things could be had for a song and poor people needed to sell.

As economic reforms took hold, Weng became a small vendor, though at first he still encountered suspicion that his activities were illicit.

He went to Shanghai and at first he would spread a blanket on the ground and spread his wares - statues, vases, jewel cases, decorations of all kinds. Business flourished. He was a natural businessman and he educated himself about antiques.

Eventually he was able to open an antiques shop in 1998 near the Old City God Temple.

"These items have become a limited resource," Weng said. "People now contact me when they see anything vintage or precious. That's the result of my many years of business and contacts."

But long before he could open that store, he started an antique furniture factory and workshop in 1990 in Ningbo. He repaired furniture, reproduced it and exported it internationally.

From riding a bicycle to traveling by air to collect valuable antiques, Weng gradually became a connoisseur.

The items in his museum today are wide ranging, including ceramics, bronzes, paintings, carvings, elaborate bed sets and screens.

Bigger plans

Around 10 years ago, Weng began to focus on something larger still - collecting old houses. By that time it wasn't easy to pick up antiques at a good price because everyone wanted them. And he already had quite a collection.

In the late 1990s, building on his successful business, he considered opening a museum of antique buildings and displaying his own collection. He got around to it in 2006.

Less than a year after construction started, however, the financial crisis hit and everything ground to a halt.

His total factory sales for 2008 were only 150,000 yuan (US$22,000).

"In my most difficult time, I had around 20 yuan in my pocket," he said.

But Weng squarely confronted the problem that would have daunted many less determined men.

Business was stagnant but he had to continue building, construction was already underway. He sold the apartment he had bought for his son, friends lent him money and the Yinzhou District government also supported him. His debt eased and he continues reassembling and restoring all those buildings.

"One of my friends lent me 1 million yuan without any hesitation when he heard I was in trouble and his generosity really touched me," Weng said. "I still owe around 7 million yuan, but things will get better."

And they did.

Today, Weng surveys a magnificent scene, a complex of structures that call to mind China of long ago. He's especially fond of his first find, the elaborate Datong Hall, a reception hall that belonged to a wealthy salt merchant.

Another set of buildings is the enormous residence of an extended family, containing 14 rooms and two courtyards - each courtyard surrounded by seven rooms.

"This is typical southern China furniture style," said Yao Yuanyuan, Weng's daughter-in-law. The whole family supports the project.

"Each piece has its own story and everything could not be told even in five days and nights," Weng said.

"It's better to let more people see this cultural heritage than keep it all for myself."

Among the messages in the visitor's book, "moved" is the most frequently appearing word.

"It's a crazy but great idea, though I could never imagine doing it," said Zhu, a hairstylist from Ningbo, admitted.

Weng is adamant that admission is free. "I don't want to sell tickets to make money," he said. "I just want to perfect the details of our museum."

The First Building

One of the most popular buildings - and the first Weng ever "collected" - is Datong Hall, a reception hall for a rich salt merchant in Jinhua City in Zhejiang Province.

He bought the Qianlong Period (1711-1799) structure covering more than 100 square meters more than nine years ago.

"There's not a single metal nail in the hall - it's that precious, there are only wooden pegs and grooves," he said, adding that it was built by master craftsmen.

At first Weng and his team had no idea how to take it apart and put it back together.

"When workers climbed up to the top, they were afraid of destroying the building and had no idea where to start," Weng continued. "I had to figure it out myself." As a former farmer, he had no problem with rolling up his sleeves and getting to work.

Because the house was old and fragile, he could feel it swaying slightly as he stood on the roof. But for a week he led his team in photographing and diagramming, numbering each piece, and dismantling the building.

There were plenty of problems. When neighbors realized a big project was underway, they tried to obstruct work and demanded money. They threatened to block roads. Weng paid.

Then the former owner - though he had a contract and had already been paid - demanded additional fees. Weng paid.

Finally the house was loaded into 50 trucks and driven to Ningbo where they remained in a warehouse until five years ago. At that time a foreign client offered to buy the house for US$600,000.

Weng turned it down, saying the building "isn't just a house but a national treasure." Chinese customs almost certainly would not have permitted export.

After realizing that people were interested, he decided to reassemble the hall.

"I had another crazy idea: Why not restore it and open it to the public?" he said.

Then he researched professional disassembly and reassembly and trained a team of 30 construction workers.

He went looking for more buildings and now has 15 on his property, plus the main museum. Assembly took four years.

Weng also studied architecture of the time and hired experts to meticulously restore the buildings, retaining their original appearance, decorative paintings, filigree window screens, brass fittings and everything else.

How to get there


When arriving in Ningbo, head toward the Gaoqiao County Government Building, follow Wangchun Road to the sign that says Minle Xincun (New Minle Village), turn right at the next block and turn left when seeing the sign for Minle Cunweihui (Residents' Committee of Mingle Village).


Take a tourist bus to South Ningbo Station from Shanghai South Long-Distance Bus Station (near South Shanghai Railway Station) or from the Shanghai Long-Distance Bus Station (at Shanghai Railway Station). Transfer to a bus heading to Yuyao and get off at Macheqiao Station.

Or take a bus to Macheqiao Station

Or take Bus 302 or 238 to Gaoqiao County Station, transfer to Bus 156 to Macheqiao Station.

Household Museum

Admission: Free

Address: Macheqiao, Minle Village, Gaoqiao County, Zhejiang Province

Tel: 0574-8844-7532; 138-0587-2259


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