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.
Master Yu reviews plans with Andreas Thomczyk, of anySCALE design - sometimes a piece of chalk on the floor will do!
Ed learns at the hands of the master. I was very nervous being unleashed on one of his actual projects, not an offcut of wood. In this instance, I learned how to carve dragon scales.
The lovely people at Jiangsu TV caught whiff of the stink we were creating down in Wuyuan, and came to see for themselves what all the fuss was about... learn how we chose our Chinese name, catch up with work on site and listen to Ed's slightly wonky mandarin. (Youtube)
From rose gardened manors to a student tip, every house has a distinctive smell. Ours is one of fragrant China Fir wood oils. The inside is built completely from wood – the walls, the ceiling, the floors and the frame holding it up. China Fir (misleadingly a type of Cypress tree) or Cunninghamia lanceolata grows wild in the woods around the village and in the mountains beyond. It is exceptionally strong, but workable and has stood firm (give or take the odd wobble after 280 or so…) for 300 years in our house. It is most prized for its gorgeous smell, and entering our front door one's nose could be forgiven for thinking it was in a moist woodland glade with pine cones crunching underfoot.
To help us restore the house, we’ve brought in a local team of carpenters, who are simply a joy to be around. Powered by a potent cocktail of cheap cigarettes and power naps, they work tirelessly and with precision. Their ways are the old ways, using handsaws, chisels, axes and planes – nothing is factory prepared; power tools, nails and glues are completely out of the question.
A common question we get is 'Why...this? The village, the falling down house, difficult working environment, all the risks, the money...', cue awkward silence.
Our answer hasn't changed - my heart races every time I set foot in the house. When I look at, touch and smell her walls; the history, architectural finery and flagstones worn smooth by the footsteps of time. Oh if these walls could talk, what things they have seen!
They've stood firm whilst the Qing dynasty, the Taiping Rebellion, The Boxer uprising, May 4th movement, the Nationalists and the revolutionaries have all flashed past in a whirlwind, and since faded to nothingness. Some have made their mark on the house. All will have made a mark on the people who've lived here. My passion, my wish - is to peel back these layers and bring them to the surface for my own interest, but also to share with an outside world which has been too long locked out of these stories.
If you've been to China: Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, maybe even Xi'An and Chengdu you might have wondered where these 5000 years of history is that we all hear so much about. The answer lies away from the rapacious development in the cities, lost up in the hills in the small villages where the diggers have not razed the land for concrete towers. Wuyuan is a shining example of this - always renowned for culture and learning, isolated from modernity by its location.
This post is an introduction to how we started to understand our house. Odds are slim you'll make it to the end of this piece, but would be far slimmer were I to share everything we've learned to date.
Handing over the house from the Jin families to Edward and Selina, local press came to catch a scoop. Hear about teacher Jin's regrets at selling the house, master builder Yuzong's design philosophy and Ed's first interview in Chinese.
Everything you thought you knew about China is wrong.
If you live in China long enough, this feeling actually seems to increase, not decrease. Such is the nature of the beast.
Our hotel is located in a small village in Jiangxi province - not a place known for international practices and standards. Having worked in Shanghai for 3.5 years, I had a taste of how things work in China: the relentless energy and long hours of my Chinese colleagues, the deafening silence when people are pushed for an opinion, the vast sums of money and people involved in every project. Overall, my biggest lesson was absorbing the ever present mantra 'there is no one China, but many Chinas, each over-lapping and interwoven with one another'. These themes should be familiar to anyone who has spent time in the middle Kingdom. Interestingly enough, nearly all of these assumptions appear wrong in my village experience.
If you work in China, you may not think that the business culture of villages, fields and hill farms concern you and your proverbial marketing agency in Shanghai. Just remember, however, that most people in China come from the countryside within the past generation or two; that cultural continuity and family ties remain. Western business practices are a relatively new way of doing things, and bubbling beneath the surface will be an awareness of how things were done traditionally.
I've tried to outline some key musings I have learnt from the past year - in buying a house, land, tendering for builders, dealing with the government and ultimately - maintaining and growing relationships.
Lesson 1: Bring A Strong Baijiu game
With contracts signed and money paid, it was apparent that the families still hadn't moved out from the house. We approached our mayor to delicately enquire what we had done wrong. 'Oh nothing'...'but you haven't handed over yet'. As is the often the case in the countryside, ritual trumps process. With this direction, we asked the venerable Jin Laoshi (teacher) to lead a ceremony for us to take over ownership of the house, and then begin the building work. We invited the families selling, local party leaders, our carpenter Yuzong, and local TV.
Deciding to buy a house is a huge decision for anyone to make. In the deep end of China's peasant villages, where the local communist party is the bastion of fair play and adjudication, it's tougher than most. There is only so much due diligence you can do before a purchase, and after a while you just have to follow your heart. With sweeping, gorgeous old houses littered around Wuyuan, our hearts were beating loud in our chests at every threshold we crossed.
The Chinese saying 忘年之交, (lit. forget-age-friendship) describes a friendship between members of different generations. With and age gap of 270 years, its fair to say we are stretching this idiom to its limits...
A Friend in Need
In October 2015 Ed & Selina found a house in disrepair; rotten beams crunched and bent alarmingly underfoot, part of the roof had fallen in and without intervention would be a complete ruin within a few years. This is the fate of too many of these once magnificent halls in the rural South of China.
Falling in Love Again...
Undeniably, grandeur lurks beneath the surface. A rich tapestry of hand carved wooden doors, beams and decorative supports sit above grand airy halls. Three Skywells form grand galleries on the precipitous second floor. Paving stones inside are worn smooth by the footsteps of countless generations, whose names and voices are lost to the mists of time. Unfortunately for us, we are absolute suckers for the romance of these old houses. This one in particular called out to us like the last dog in the rescue centre that no one wants - its old and could do with a wash... but when you find the one you just know!
Before we fell in love with the house, there was just Ed and Selina. Before we got to Wuyuan, to Jiangxi province, to old houses, government offices, architects and baijiu-fuelled lunches... it was just us. And for us, this is the story of our life as much as it is a business plan.