Southern China every year takes a deep breath, tightens its rain coat and steps into the blast of the rainy season. And when it rains, it surely pours. This year did not disappoint, with our newly restored roof being given a thorough workout (and coming through with flying colours, I might add).
With work on site being reduced to odd bits of snagging - straightening toilet seats, oiling creaky doors and the like, everyone was excitedly looking forwards to welcoming our first guests. It would take more than the odd pitter patter of rain to get me out of bed in the morning. The ayi banging my door, saying 'come quick!' was quite another matter. Water had blocked up next to the restaurant from last night's rain and was working its way over our newly laid limestone floor. Wellies on, bucket in hand and a bit of stiff upper lip saw us through, and said water blockage was released in the neighbours garden. The rain passed, and it was clearly time to sit down for a cup of tea.
Pottering around the village in the sunshine, I saw our experience was not unique. Water was gushing down the narrow pathways, clear & warm over my now beflip-flopped feet an inch deep. Most doors were open, with old ladies energetically hurling water out, frequently into my oncoming face. I hoped they hadn't blamed the rains on my laissez-faire attitude to Feng Shui when restoring the house, and were now giving me a hard time for it. Most dramatically, an old wooden bridge crossing the river by our house was now absent. Unlikely to have been misplaced in the night, or cursed by my reckless placement of doorways on our property - I also couldn't help but notice the water level on the river really was rather high.
Myself and a few of the villagers had gathered to compare notes at the riverbank with our morning breakfasts as the water kept on coming, despite the continuing lack of rain. A few people now started swearing: Chilli Pepper crops were ruined. Access to the fields was blocked. Minutes later, sofas, beds and household items washed past us in the now raging torrent. Someone upstream of us was clearly having a harder time of it than we. This seemed an excellent time to about turn and review the situation back at the house.
The village was now a few inches deep in brown river water, as opposed to the glistening clear rain water earlier. We would later find out that a dam had burst up stream, and the government decided to release another to ease the flood risk. I bumped into Da Hong, our chef, turning up for work at the same time as I got back on his scooter, which he'd gamely pushed the final hundred metres. At this point, we began playing a protracted game of chicken with mother nature. Rain had long before stopped, but water levels in the village kept rising, until they breached the Skywell's threshold.
I'd like to thank everyone on site that day - our two wonderful ayis and their families and Da Hong for joining me in a game of 'how high can we raise these heavy expensive things!?' Fridges, ice machines, washing machines, freezers and chairs all went up stairs or onto counters. The stone plinths in the garden came into their own as a means to raise up the beds in each ground floor bedroom as the water began lapping in. The dog wondered around and looked confused, urgently wanting to sit down, but not keen on a wet bum.
Sensing there was not much else to be done, I joined Da Hong for a wet cup of tea on the patio. Splosh went something in the water next to us.
'A fish - catch it!' cried Selina.
'Could be', replied Da Hong, playing with his phone. 'Or a snake'.
Tea was immediately cancelled as we headed upstairs to survey the devastation. I braved a trip out on my bike to survey the damage on the village. The water was a foot deep or more in some places, and children giggled as I went past whilst parents hushed them back inside. Teacher Jin gave me a stern warning about flood safety as I careened past. An unexpected pothole collided with my front wheel and gave me a new perspective, exploring my surroundings head first and underwater.
Back at the house, Da Hong nonchalantly waved at a newly exposed brick. 'Water's receding'. And it was. It left as quick as it had come, and in 30 minutes all that was left was alluvial sludge. Fortunately, Huizhou houses have serious in built drainage systems, built in stone running under the house to take water from the courtyard. They are effectively built to be hose-down. Our ground floor bedrooms only received an inch, was below electrics. The skirting boards had to come up, and there was seriously cleaning to do, but that was the extent of it.
We live to fight another day.
To help speed up the construction process, we gave the team here a 'hard' deadline: that on May 5th, we would hold a wedding in our new home in Wuyuan. Taking a leaf straight from the university student's playbook, early confidence and cups of tea increasingly gave way to frenzied panic, all nighters and pleas for deadline extensions. Having sat on the other side of the table a few times before, I knew a blagger when I saw one. 'Just get it done'.
and they did.
The result is staggering - but a story for another day. Rather, this is the story of our intimate, 20 guest, friends-and-family-only intimate ceremony in our garden, whiling away the sundown with a dozy nap. Or so we thought.
Our previous pleas to the local government to get our electric and plumbing put in on time leant heavily on our fabulous 'wedding-carnivale' narrative, complete with international press, senior members of the British Government, Mary Berry and 2 members of One Direction in attendance. Local dignitaries and villagers alike took this very much to heart, and helpfully smoothed over our utilities quandries, whilst also giving us helpful recommendations for wedding planners.
As is often the way in China, at an 11pm strategy meeting the night before, the veil was lifted on tomorrow's proceedings to the Gawne family. Dowries were to be presented, there would be 'some' spectators and firecrackers, and I would collect Selina in a traditional Sedan chair from the house of Teacher Jin, a local village elder and bring her back to our home. As is tradition, Selina's mother was to cry, as one only would when a hairy, scary foreigner steals away your daughter.
What followed did technically follow this outline, but I feel I had been somewhat undersold the magnitude of the event.
A Chinese village wedding
To begin, I was given a traditional outfit, complete with multi-feathered hat, and began the long process of standing in the street as barrages of firecrackers were let off around me. If you've never experienced Chinese firecrackers, they are simply strings of explosives laid out to create as much noise and smoke as possible (and they fulfil this brief to perfection), to ward of evil spirits and announce your happiness to the community.
From there, replete with my sedan chair, musicians, and dancing troupe, I made my way through the village's winding alleys to Teacher Jin's house to collect my prize. Fighting my way through throngs of onlookers and explosives, I found Selina, veiled and shoeless deep inside. My role, as her new husband, was to ensure her feet didn't touch the ground until she reached our marital bed. With this in mind, I carried her on my back to the waiting Sedan outside, with which we paraded her around the village, back to The Skywells, and up into our new bed. Here I was allowed to finally see what was hiding under the veil; I can only assume in times gone by, a few of the young men of Yancun may have been stung at this juncture. Our marriage, however, was decidedly unnarranged, so I knew what I had signed up for and was delighted. 'As is tradition', a child urinated in an urn behind us. Again, I can only assume someone's nuptials were thoroughly interrupted once in years gone by, only for a quick-off-the-mark relative to cry: 'thats good luck you know, they'll all want it at their own weddings soon!' And thus a tradition was born.
Standing On Ceremony
Up next, came a ceremony in our main hall. we made promises to each other, and our families, with a healthy dollop of bowing and candles. A Hui Opera performance in the garden followed under the sweltering sunshine, to be followed, as these things tend to be, by mountains of food and spicy baijiu.
At a quieter moment, I asked some of the families who had sold us the house about their own weddings. They took place in the same main hall as ours, and involved copious amounts of food and baijiu and the whole village turned up to watch. Their marriages were in leaner times, 40 years ago, but they told me the crowds of people turning up in the house, and feelings of warmth felt familiar, as did all the customs. I suspect the press corps and circling drones perhaps didn't, but none of us dwelt on it.
And as quickly as they appeared, they were gone again. We were left standing in an empty hall, surveying the typical carnage that follows any party. Sad looking half drunk cups of beer, juxtaposed by a pleasing sense of control and calm that had been sorely lacking beforehand. The village now feels like home: we know people by name, and they stop us to give us bits of extra food they have, no longer viewing us with suspicion but cheery smiles. We have a lifetime left to return them.
After a few CAD plans seemed not to quite hit their mark with Yuzong, who was charged with restoring the old house, Mika and the anySCALE team had to turn to somewhat more low-tech design visualisation techniques.
One of the first decisions we made in restoring this ancient mansion, was that we needed an architect. This is not a given. Often Chinese teams will forgo an architect all together: 'I've seen Grand Designs on TV, how hard can it be etc etc?'. This is one of the leading causes of what we might tentatively call 'hot trash' architecture, so beloved by concrete teams around small Chinese cities today. This route was not for me.
We don't have bags of cash to spend, and even as laymen could see what a big job this was to be. Perhaps in light of this, my enquiries never made it past the over zealous reception desks of the big international firms. Rather, it was in the boutique agencies of Beijing and Shanghai where we found the hunger and sense of wonder we were searching for to rouse our dozing wreck of a house from its long slumber. We are very lucky to have the safe hands of anySCALE Beijing to not only design our dream home and business, but mentor and guide us through the construction process. The precision, creativity and attention to detail that define their work, I must admit I did not find on page 1 of the 'Chinese Rural Builders How-to Guide'. Thus they have been the perfect tonic to some of the inevitable hurdles we've encountered along the way.
To get a perspective from the other side of the fence, I caught up with Andreas, Mika and Amy to ask how working with complete beginners, hundreds of miles away in the countryside was for them. We are especially thankful to Amy Mathieson, the original driving force behind our relationship, who despite leaving the company and the county, still took the time to share her thoughts and memories.
1. What attracted you to this project?
Those who are mainly working on this project - Amy, Mika, Chris, myself - were all educated in Europe. An important part of our education to be an architect was how to implement modern design into existing building structures. Whereas now practicing mainly in large scale urban environment in fast growing China these cultural aspects of our profession could easy getting lost. To balance our work as an architect we therefore decided to explore more opportunities to work within historical Chinese architecture. When Ed and Selina approached us in early 2016 we were not only attracted by the fact that their courtyard houses were beautiful, ancient and representing part of Chinese cultural heritage but also by the fact that Ed and Selina were newcomer entrepreneurs and new as well in the field of hospitality. But both had a clear vision of what they aim to achieve. The mixture of dedication and uncertainty made us curious and willing to take the chance.
Many things, but what attracted me the most was the opportunity to work on a historic building in the Huizhou vernacular style.
I joined the project at a later stage, when anySCALE was already assigned and concept outlines decided. Nevertheless I was really happy about this chance to gain some insight both into hotel design and the Huizhou vernacular.
2. How would you describe the overall concept of the house design?
The assembly of these three houses is defined by its sky wells. We have taken the three skywells as the starting point of our design. 15 guest rooms are arranged around these sky wells. Even though the principles of design are similar, each guest room has its own special character. The irregularity of the preserved building structure has supported our idea of creating various arrangements of guest rooms. We admire the tradition of having almost totally enclosed thick stone walls towards the outside contrasting with lighter wooden structures towards the inside of the house.
This traditional principle of architecture follows the understanding of society in China. Families stay together to protect themselves well against the outside. Having transferred this tradition into our days it will create an intimate but also communicative atmosphere inside this boutique hotel. We have kept materials natural and pure with a touch of pop by adding colour accents and decorative elements. Shared facilities such as the newly made restaurant and the library are more exposed towards outside. The restaurant is part of a newly designed English type of garden while the library - elevated above the roof of the hotel - can be widely seen from the village.
I would describe the overall design as being respectful and sympathetic to it’s surrounding history and heritage, while flexible enough to lend a new purpose to the building and extend it’s lease of life. It is an ‘east meets west’ story.
The conceptual approach is clear and stringent. The aim was to restore the old substance as faithfully as possible in the public areas, while taking more liberties inside the guest rooms and the added spaces.
New additions are clearly recognisable as such and do not try to blend with the historical parts.
Inside the guest rooms comfort, coziness and hygiene were given higher priority that historical correctness. Also the colour scale is clearly modern inside the rooms and breaks with the ‘Chinese country inn’ -cliché in a sensitive way.
I think this approach is a good balance between respecting the building and satisfying contemporary expectations.
3. What would you describe as 'anySCALE design', and where can we see this in the house?
First of all we understand space. To explore, design and in the case of existing structures to carve out the best space allocation is something we care and believe in. Our design aim to be reduced to what it needs to let space stand out for itself. And we believe in the beauty of how different materials get connected and will stand side by side. In the case of skywell our design emphasises on the connection of the traditional existing architecture with modern additions. Ancient architecture should be in use and should be sensitively updated to actual needs. Only if tradition can be merged with todays needs it will last for long. Our design aims to reflect what a young, urban, openminded crowd would expect when spending a relaxed weekend outside the metropolis.
The anySCALE concept is to create good, clean design that is attractive and also functional. One of the areas where this is most prominent is in the design of the guest rooms. In these rooms we moved away from the traditional Chinese decoration style in favour of a more European look, with clean lines, contemporary furniture and fittings and coordinated colour schemes.
4. What is your impression of workers in the village? How are they different to other construction teams you've encountered?
We feel workers in the village are committed to our clients goal. I can see those workers are involved being proud to not only restoring Ed and Selina’s houses but also doing good for the whole village. Even though most of the workers not familiar with state of the art (digital) technologies they do have an understanding of their profession. More often than in the capital these workers remind me of carpenters in Germany, where being a craftsman is still considered as valuable contribution to society.
In some ways they are not so different from some of the smaller teams I’ve worked with in Beijing. That’s probably because much of the labour and construction force are migrant workers, often from southern or western provinces. However when compared to larger construction companies there definitely isn’t the same discipline or professionalism. The knowledge on how to do a certain thing is very localised and there is generally a mistrust for trying unfamiliar techniques and technology. One of the things that surprised me the most was the age of the workers. Almost all of them were males above the age of 50, some looked to be well into their late 60s, early 70s, a direct result of the mass migrations from villages to cities by the younger generation.
For the most part the project was similar to my experience on other sites in rural China.
The biggest difference to workers on other sites was maybe the very specific skill set of this team. Usually in China it is hard to find good craftsmen. On this site we were lucky to work with amazingly skilled carpenters and woodcarvers, who on the other hand were struggling with surprisingly common tasks.
5. Mika in particular has a lot of experience with wood. How would you characterise the local carpentry?
What struck me most seeing Jiang and his carpenters at work, was their fantastic skill in making snug joints in irregularly shaped pieces of timber and the precision achieved with traditional tools.
Also the sheer amount of experience the mostly elderly workers showed is inspiring, so we felt comfortable leaving things like the choice of wood or the exact dimensions of timber to be decided by the carpenters.
Another amazing thing of course was to see the traditional wood carving craft being so much alive in the work of Yuzong and his team. The result, especially on the freshly replaced main beam, is truly beautiful.
6. Europe has a heritage of old building preservation, restoration and renovation. Which of these tools did you bring into this project? Did any western buildings serve as inspiration in this way?
Before having arrived in China I have spend 15 years studying and working in Vienna, the capital of Austria. Vienna is considered one of the world’s best preserved cities. Almost every project I was working on in my early career was within buildings more than 100 years old. Many architects in Vienna have successfully proven that the right balance between preservation and state of the art design can keep a capital city constantly "state of the art”. I often take inspiration from Vienna’s architecture when designing in China.
I think we brought a bit of everything to this project. Certainly I took my knowledge and inspiration of how the UK treats with historic buildings with me when I started working on Skywells. As this is a largely timber structure there was an amount of renovation that had to take place, however we did restore and preserve architectural and decorative elements wherever possible.
Preservation and reuse are fairly common tasks for architects in Europe, and have been an important part of my professional life. That experience was certainly helpful in this project.
More than by any specific building, I would say our design work is informed by the long tradition in renovation and reuse of historical buildings in Europe. There, the best approaches to these tasks are constantly being discussed. Architects are expected to have and defend their views on the topic, and may be challenged by developers, the users and by architectural historians. This forces designers to evaluate every aspect of the project from many angles in order to make well informed decisions.
7. Which part of the project are you most proud of?
The project is still ongoing and i am hesitating to judge at this stage. I definitely feel glad we got appointed and proud to contribute with our design expertise to help recovering ancient architecture which had been neglected for decades.
Creating a design that recognises and elevates the traditional building and decoration style, while still creating a truly unique hotel. Many of the guest houses and hotels in this area are designed in the cookie-cutter “Chinese-ified" style that can be found everywhere in the country. We wanted to create something more sympathetic and true to the architecture that also stands out in terms of building quality and decorative finishes.
It’s safe to say that Selina and Ed will have a unique house to run. I think we managed to strike a good balance between the different requirements and to develop a coherent design language.
Although it’s still early to judge the result, but if we manage to achieve the level of detailing and the quality of execution we are aiming for, we have reason to be proud.
8. What was the most challenging part?
Probably the most challenging part was to adapt our working method to the traditional working style of local craftsmen. Even though we have anticipated that lots of decisions need to be made on spot we were not aware that most of the workers were not even able to read printed drawings or digital files.
Designing the layout to transform the space from a family home into a hotel. As the hotel is within the confines of an existing space it was a challenge to create appropriate sized rooms at the right numbers, taking into consideration the fact that the traditional architecture style does not include many windows to the outside but instead uses the inner courtyards as their primary source of light. Another challenge was the locations of the bathrooms, which we ended up stacking over two floors, to minimise wet areas.
Having a team of very skilled carpenters and other traditional craftsmen was a big asset, but their commitment to tradition created challenges in communication when we suggested solutions they were not familiar with. The team leaders could at times also hold quite strong opinions about the way things should look, questioning, and at times opposing, our design decisions.
Other than that, we encountered the usual challenges of projects in rural China: difficulties in obtaining reliable information, limited availability of materials and skilled labour, neighbourhood diplomacy and constant surprises on site.
9. What was the most rewarding part?
I hope that those who will be guests of Ed and Selina’s boutique hotel will feel comfortable when staying at Skywells. If they feel that our design has contributed to making them feel relaxed it will be the best compliment for our work.
Seeing the restoration and reconstruction of the stone walls and timber elements which are in keeping with the traditional style and layout of that house. It was very rewarding to see the locally carved central beams being elevated into place in the future reception area.
Seeing the new timber structures going up this well executed was a very rewarding moment. It is quite rare to witness good carpentry in China, and for once I felt able to put my expertise to good use.
And of course positive feedback from clients on one side, and from future guests on the other is always rewarding.
10. What next - will you be taking up more ancient building projects?
Yes, definitely. We have build up our “sky well” team to take care of this part of our operation.
I hope to continue taking on restoration projects for historic buildings. Now that I’m based in the US these might not be as ancient as those timber structures in China, but there is a lot of 200-300 year old colonial architecture in need of preservation here.
Absolutely. Having worked on a number of historical buildings in both Europe and China, I really enjoy the special challenges these projects hold.
All is still this morning in our patch of the Wuyuan countryside. The dulcet tones of Chinese construction crews have been replaced with the familiar chirps of birdlife and the wind brushing through the long bamboo prongs, punctuated by the odd explosion. Chinese New Year has come to Yan village, and our workers have downed tools and gone home to be with their families across the county. In their place, Yan villagers have returned from cities and factory towns strewn across China, to eat with and be hassled by their family about when they will get married and have children. For many, it is the only chance they will have this year to take a break. They have brought fireworks, and boy do they know how to use them. For us, this is a significant milestone in the project schedule, and feels like a good time to take stock on how far we've come.
Back garden, July 2016
1 of 5 old bicycles in the house.
Mrs Teng and her sticks
We first trod foot in this then nameless house, an impossible rabbit warren of rooms, corridors and courtyards in November 2015. Occasionally a little old lady would appear and vanish away up a hidden staircase, or a secret door in a wall, as per a Scooby Doo episode. It was obviously a wreck, and a little intimidating as it wore the badge of both being someone else's home and being long abandoned at the same time. Neglect was reflected in the collapsed roof. Piles of old shoes, rusted bicycles and broken guitars attested to lives lived here in the not too distant past. Huge mounds of sticks obviously kept someone's winter fire going, but added to the claustrophobia and damp.
Clearing the house literally required masks and gloves as we sifted through all sorts of organic treasures which had been squashed under the floorboards for a century or so. It was also fabulously rewarding, as we found scrolls, past residents' photos and journals and stories of the lives which had trodden the floors before us. For one brief moment when the main halls were completely clear and brushed clean, they recaptured their grandeur: square thick lines framed the delicate wooden carvings, lit up by sunshine glowing through the roof openings. The image hung in the air for a day, and was shattered the next when the carpenters started ripping the house apart. They took it to bits like a lego kit. From tiles, rafters, walls, floorboards, joists, columns and supports: everything was came down, was washed, inspected and repaired/reused/replaced. Then the lego kit went back up again. I'm sure if you ask our construction team they'll see it slightly differently. Somewhere along the way the roof went up 3 feet, and a huge amount of sculpture was carved into our wooden frame.
The calm before the storm - Yuzong inspects the house before his team starts tearing it apart
New and old wood as carpenters repair main frame
Carpentry team has an after-lunch nap
The collapsed pig pens have now been re-built into a 3 story wing of the house, as they were before (ish). The top deck is now 3 ft higher, with a roomy terrace, an apartment for Ed & Selina on the second floor and a bar/kitchen on the ground floor. We've used concrete columns to add a bit of support here. Master carpenter Yuzong said this would 'possibly' be OK if we used wood. 'How many people did we envisage standing up there at any one time?'. We opted for concrete. The views are stunning, gazing over the courtyard, and up the misty mountains behind. Rocking chairs, the summer wind and gin and tonics beckon.
Ed and Selina on the 3rd floor
Timber structured roof above 3rd floor
3rd floor looks over central skywell and mountains beyond
Since our carpenters left, a battalion of interior workers have come to site. We had 30 workers going at once the other week: wiring bedrooms, installing aircon, sealing walls and plumbing toilets. They brought with them wives and children, and in a scene that would have Western health and safety managers pulling their hair out, children frequently ran around the site, uninterested by the work going on around them, but happy to be with the fathers close to New Year. Together, these families are dragging the house, kicking and screaming, into the 21st Century. Where we had a wooden frame, we now have rooms, windows, bathrooms, insulation, tiles, floors and walls. For me, this has been 'that moment' every young man has in his life when he notices he is becoming his Father. The fascination men of a certain age have with drains, fuseboxes and damp proofing now courses through my veins.
Concrete replaces the original wooden subfloor beneath the bathrooms (2F)
Double layer Rockwool insulation with an air gap - unheard of in rural China
Tiler gets to work in ground floor
surfaces sealed on the ground floor
workers' children play on site... : /
moving roll top bath tubs around a village with no cars
The garden, our once impenetrable jungle of bamboo, weeds, house foundations, sheds, a chicken coop and vegetable patches is now flat and ready for action. Some problems in China are invariably difficult to solve (quality control). Others, however, benefit from the endless supply of cheap, enthusiastic labour which propels the Chinese economy ever onwards. This force helped us move literally tonnes of earth, stone, bits of broken pot, and the rest. We've uncovered an old courtyard in the process, whose limestone slab we are preserving for our terrace. Removing all the 'cr*p' from the garden now means we can lay a proper, level lawn. The croquet dream lives on.
Old shed in the garden is taken down
uncovering foundations of an old house, under a tree in the garden
Garden perimeter is laid out.
We've worked closely with an amazing variety of people. Yuzong and Boss Jiang have set an early pace with traditional carpentry and sculpture. We've been mentored to where we are now, thanks to the patience, creativity and a spot of German precision from anySCALE design in Beijing. Nies Zong and Gong now rule the site leading the interior teams, who work only at high speed, long hours and huge numbers of people. Its not all been plain sailing: we're on our third project manager since the build began, are not exactly ahead of schedule and are now at the ugly end of our budget.
So what next? Still a fair amount! Bedrooms, interior surfaces (wall paint, ceilings, floorboards), glazing, lighting will require fair bit of heavy lifting. Decorations, furniture, beds, linens will perhaps call for something a little lighter. Everyone always forgets about laying the garden until the last minute and we shall aspire not to. Working with anySCALE, our design partners in Beijing we have a plan for all of these, and we feel relatively in control, which is a rare comfort in this part of the world.
We are having our wedding at the hotel in early May and are excited about the prospect of an inevitable mad rush in the two weeks beforehand.
The Old Enemy
In a wooden framed house, termites and leaking water have long been the enemy. Today we have water proof membranes and pest control, but in the early Qing dynasty one could but build a house well and take good care of it. This policy saw ours through Centuries, until political revolution and building neglect allowed these enemies at the gate a toe in the door. In our case, they had attacked the corner joint of our main beam, a booming 8 metre long piece of Asian red maple supporting half of our house, and would need to be changed. After we took down a smaller sub beam, we saw the inside was hollowed out by termites (picture below) and feared for the worst as we looked at its big brother still holding half the house up a few metres away.
Main beams in a Huizhou house are 驼背 (tuobei) or hunchback in shape; Qing architecture called for elegant, bowed and curved lines. The largest of these sits in our entrance hall, a place designed for ancestral worship. This two-storied hall was spacious, grand and elaborate and demanded a fitting grand beam to match. Our replacement timber is a local pine, delivered to the village on a truck, 8 metres long and the best part of a metre in diameter. From here, it had to be dragged down the narrow alleys of the village on wooden rollers, up and over our garden wall and into the house. Mr Luo’s old kitchen door in the side of our house was unfortunately too small for this, and subsequently lost a fight with a big hammer. Once safely ensconced within our hallway, the carpenters could go to work trimming it to the traditional ‘hunchback shape’. Their weapon of choice: a single sided, sharp-as-you-like axe, hacking into the side of the tree trunk by eye. Final shaping is done with a plane, which despite looking decidedly home made in someone’s shed, again has a blade that could slice a mosquito in half.
Team pull the new beam across the garden on wooden rollers
Carpenter shapes the beam with an axe in main hall. Selina looks on
Beam makes its way into the main hall, via Mr. Luo's old kitchen door
Carving Out Our Niche
Master Jiang’s OAP-carpentry team work quickly and hassled us for when they could switch this new beam for the old one. Unfortunately, they would have to wait. Yuzong and his wood sculptors first needed to carve the elaborate decoration into it for which Wuyuan houses are so famous. The original owner had only carved the underside of the beam, with flowers and birds in homage to the village’s surroundings and Chinese knots to convey peace and longevity. Yuzong’s first job was to send his apprentices up to the old beam as it sat in the roof with tracing paper, to capture the details of the old beams carved underside and then transpose this to the new beam on the ground.
Team works into the night carving both sides of our main beam
Yuzong's apprentices work on main frieze on side of beam
Yuzong goes over the details in the tricky sections
With the new beam on the ground and ready to carve this image from our old beam, Yuzong looked unsatisfied. The issue, he sighed, was the original owners hadn’t carved into the side of the beam (just the bottom), and so it would look ‘a little plain’. Other houses in the area famously feature elaborate military victories, scholars and government mandarins in celebration of the original owners. His understanding of the job, and payment we had given him, was to include such a carving. We are not sure why the previous owners had not done so; they were clearly not short of money. Perhaps the odd shape of our house dictated one enters this grand hall from the side, instead of straight on so it wouldn’t be readily visible. I wrestled in my head with the implications for preservation architecture. In adding on something that wasn’t previously there, it was decided we couldn’t carve in ‘pretend’ stories of old, but should instead add our chapter to the story in a fitting and tasteful way. It is, as they say, ‘the business of the wealthy man to give business to the artisan’. Whilst we are far from wealthy (and have bank the debts to testify…) we are relatively prosperous for this area and can fund Yuzong’s team to do their wonderful work. Work we hope will last for centuries more to come, with the same hand carved techniques that have been used for countless generations past. Around Yuzong’s dinner table one night, we set about designing our story to go onto the side of the new beam.
The end product was one of our romance – Edward, a Chinese vision of a stereotypical Englishman in a top hat and big Western nose, gazing at Selina, the Chinese beauty, meeting across a bridge of birds by moonlight. This is the medieval Qixi story, feudal China’s Romeo and Juliet, with a little artistic license added by us. These two moonlit lovers were originally kept apart by their families, but then brought together by the local birdlife. Selina and I, across the oceans by China Eastern Airlines. For the carving, the birds won the day. Edward sits on the West end of the beam, and Selina the East, capturing what we hope is the best of our 中西合璧 (ZhongXiHeBi/East-meets-West) story. Symbols of Ed’ s past include an English rose, Oak acorns and the Manx flag (the Gawne homeland), whilst Selina is surrounded by the ‘Four Noble Ones’: plum blossom, orchid, bamboo and chrysanthemum sitting above a PLA flag (she was born on an army base). Finally, a Dragon and Phoenix surround us both as symbols of male and female coming together in marriage.
Yuzong and his team of apprentices worked well into the night for over a few weeks on this one piece of work. The end result is breath-taking. Yuzong himself found the whole thing completely normal, but for us it feels utterly surreal seeing ourselves ensconced in wood, next to stories of feudal China, frozen in time. For now, it still has protective sheets around in whilst work continues, full photos to follow in due course. Take a peek below at Yuzong's drawings and Selina and myself, hand carved in all our glory.
The Changing Of The Guard
Finally, it was time for master Jiang to wake his snoozing geriatric carpenters into changing this newly carved beam for the rotten old one. This was stressful to watch (see video) but all done within one day.
With the old beam safely on the floor, villagers were keenly gathering around, expectantly hoping this antique maple beam would be cut into pieces they could use for firewood. I of course, was to disappoint them, hoping to re-use it in the house with visions of an antique maple bar top in my little English pub out in the countryside. Our design and architecture partners, anySCALE, had even loftier ambitions and rightly pointed out what a shame it would be to cut up such a mighty piece of wood. We trimmed the rotten joint and found the rest of the timber was completely fine. The cold amassed neighbours slowly shuffled out into the night, their coats covering scraps of wood they had stuffed into their overcoat pockets. Everyone pretended not to notice.
Mika, our lead designer at anySCALE talked us through his plan, and invited Carpenter Jiang to see his suggestion. We would trim and clean the beam, and use it as our new reception counter, with the original carvings exposed for all to see. We would need some heavy lifting and rolling to get it into place, and shaping so computers and phones wouldn’t roll off. Mika communicated this through his quick drawing hand on a scrap of plywood, and Master Jiang gave knowing nods and grunts between long, slow draws on his cigarette. His toolkit once again got to work - 70 year old men with axes, pulleys, cigarettes and tea. By the next morning, it sat upon it’s new home: a brick plinth, away from the wet and the termites forever.
Our new reception desk (left), with thanks to Mika (drawing right) and the team at anySCALE and of course Jiang Shifu.
The structure of the house is safe for the next few hundred years or more, and I enjoy thinking about future visitors, archaeologists or historians considering how an Englishman in a top hat and a Manx flag found their way into Hui wood sculpture, deep in the Wuyuan mountains.