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Heritage Trail project

Memory Lanes

Global Times By Gao Fumao on Tues, 15/12/2009

Vanessa De Smet (top right) uses images to protect the city's unique architecture
Vanessa De Smet (top right) uses images to protect the city’s unique architecture

China Post’s sacks are heaving in the pre- Christmas rush with a special type of postcard. The fruit of an unlikely collaboration between a young Belgian photographer and a septuagenarian Beijing conservationist, these cards document the destruction of Beijing’s unique courtyard dwellings.

Raising both awareness and funds, the cards are the work of Beijing-based Belgian Vanessa De Smet, who spent months documenting the work and daily life of Zheng Xicheng, a 71-year-old preservationist and artist who has become a familiar sight in the city’s ancient hutong alleyways, with his easel and sketch paper documenting courtyard homes condemned to destruction.

Set with a documentary photography assignment by her university back in Belgium, De Smet, 28, figured she had the perfect subject. Zheng is a retired ivory carver whose most recent collection of drawings documented demolished courtyard homes, known locally as siheyuan.

Getting the word out

While taking the photos during the winter of 2008, De Smet hoped that her photos would make a difference for campaigner Zheng, who needed funds to renovate his own courtyard lest it fall foul of the bulldozers.

De Smet sifted dozens of photos to select 15 “based on what I like; what [I think] people would like” and then took the shots to a local print shop to have them turned into postcards.

Zheng was enthusiastic about the idea, seeing it as a way of internationalizing the hutongs’ plight. “He was very keen that foreign friends could take it [campaign] outside of the country.”

Friends and family around the world were quick to buy the cards. A Facebook page drummed up more support: “People I never heard of before” in the EU and US were buying packs of cards, paid for via PayPal, the online payment settlement firm. Good value for 150 yuan ($22), the card packs are also generating much awareness. Her customers’ most common reaction is shock: “What do you mean 60 percent are gone?”

That figure refers to what’s already been demolished of Beijing’s oldest and indigenous architecture, siheyuan built around hutong laneways. Zheng began drawing the hutongs in 2001, intending that his artwork would persuade developers not to demolish such unique and handsome Chinese architecture.

Sensitive topic

The elderly artist, who suffers from polio, was naïve perhaps to think that his ink drawings of 100 siheyuan would keep the wrecking ball at bay: 60 of the buildings he drew have since been demolished. The urgency of the situation came home to him when excavators and gangs of migrant workers with sledgehammers showed up next door.

Thankfully his home has been spared. Yet despite pledges from government to save the buildings Zheng is pessimistic. He’s been threatened by local police to stop drawing the vanishing buildings. Lately he’s stayed at home to renovate his own siheyuan. He’s also depressed by a government renovation program, which he says involves gangs of untrained laborers and building materials inappropriate to the architectural style.

Hence cash raised from the postcard project will help pay for the materials needed to preserve his own siheyuan as an authentic relic of what Beijing was. De Smet included three of Zheng’s drawings in her postcard packs to educate people around the world about courtyard craftsmanship.

She didn’t anticipate the objections from Zheng’s publishers, who didn’t approve of the notes on the cards detailing the destruction of the featured siheyuan. Those same publishers had already sanitized some of Zheng’s drawings before printing the book.


Lining up with De Smet on Zheng’s side there’s a motley crew of protectors including scholars and hutong residents fighting the wrecking ball. China has laws to protect heritage but they’re loosely applied, says Matthew Hu, a founding member of the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center (BCHP).

The BCHP, a magnet for international media covering the destruction of the old city, has recently been campaigning for the preservation of the former residence of renowned architects Liang Sicheng and Lin Huiyin.

A blunt statement recently issued by the group suggests failure to protect the buildings “would mean this generation of Chinese people will lose the moral authority to further discuss saving cultural heritage.”

It was indeed through the BCHP that De Smet originally met artist/preservationist Zheng. The Belgian, who works in Beijing while completing her university studies back home, constantly comments on the kindness shown to her by the Zheng family. Now “like family,” she eats at the Zheng family table each time she visits to drop off money from the postcard sales.

For her the project has been a learning curve. A delicate approach to the Zheng family’s privacy and the intimate, neighborly life of the courtyards called for an initial getting to know-you process – De Smet didn’t take her camera out of the bag the first five visits to Zheng’s courtyard. Even though photographer and subject didn’t share a common language the two hit it off.

“At the start Mr. Zheng would draw characters, till he realized I didn’t read any,” recalls De Smet. “Then he would just draw things to explain.” She knew they were getting along when Zheng’s daughter and her baby were introduced. Still, trying to blend into the background in the hutong home was a challenge for the outgoing De Smet. “You can see it in pictures, mutual respect takes a lot of time to develop.”

Generic city

Aside from yielding a stunning set of photos and awareness for a worthy Beijing preservationist, the interaction required for the postcard project prepares her for her next assignment: De Smet plans to live in Mongolia for several months in 2010 to document the rising problems of alcoholism and domestic violence.

Belgians, served by strictly applied conservation laws, know something about conservation. “Like walking through a museum” is how she describes her hometown, Antwerp.

De Smet also remembers Beijing with all of its hutongs intact. First coming here in 1991 as a 10-year-old with her tourist parents she recalls “So many bicycles…I was always getting stuck between hundreds of them.” There was “so much street life” compared to the generic office towers and 8-lane highways of today’s city.

Many people, she believes, have a picture of Beijing as the city she saw in 1991. “Then they get here and go ‘Wooh, what?’”

De Smet returned to China two years ago to run the Beijing office of a travel agency sending tourists north on the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Those lucky enough to receive a card will at least be able to see another, disappearing hutong life on De Smet’s postcards. While postbags around the world may be bulging with stories of Beijing’s endangered heritage, there’s still hope in the local youth.

Architecture students from Tsinghua University have presented a preservation plan to authorities and developers which could save the Liang-Lin courtyard from the developers’ wrecking ball. The preserved buildings might be worthy of their own postcard collection some day.

For more information and to purchase cards contact vanessa. de.smet@gmail.com

CHP would like to thank China Daily for allowing us to republish the article for educational purposes.

Read the original article.

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