Old Houses in Need of Protection

After a rampaging summer storm, the west wing of the over 200-year-old Shuyinlou brick building collapsed.

A month later, the Shanghai Municipal People's Congress passed a rule to seek better protection for the city's historic structures.

Yet the topic of how to preserve the city's century-old relics while creating a modern look for the city with a population of 16 million is still hotly disputed.

Officials at the Housing and Land Resources Administration Bureau say protection of the old buildings will draw more attentions from the public only after more detailed regulations and laws take effect.

The bureau, together with the Shanghai Urban Planning Committee and the Shanghai Municipal Administration of Cultural Heritage, have listed 398 structures and 11 areas as "fine historic buildings and zones" which require better protection.

However, the best way to preserve the architectural relics has been a thorny problem.

Built in 1763, the famous brick building Shuyinlou, meaning "pavilion for storing books," is among one of the three ancient libraries in East China on the lower reaches of the Yangtze River, according to Ruan Yishan, professor of world historic cities with the Tongji University.

"At first sight it looks shabby because of the broken eaves and walls, as well as the spreading of the wild grass," Ruan said.

"But when you wipe off the dust from the window frame you can see many exquisite carvings."

The pavilion is among those suffering from a lack of preservation.

"The dilapidation of Shuyinlou is the epitome of the interest conflicts between private owners and the local government," Ruan pointed out.

The conflict started way back in the chaotic years of "cultural revolution" (1966-76).

According to Yang Songping, an official with the cultural heritage administration, the stories behind Shuyinglou have been as entangled as the wild grass covering the building.

In 1881, a rich businessman named Guo Shen bought it from the original builder, a senior official of the Qing court (1644-1911). Shuyinlou had been the private house of the Guo family until the "cultural revolution."

Guo Junlun and his family were driven out of the house after Guo was labeled as a capitalist who needed re-education and reform.

The house was turned into a factory. An additional building was constructed to its west.

"The new building destroyed the whole structure of the original one," Guo Junlun, now 89 years old, said. "The ground of the west side sinks very quickly."

After the "cultural revolution," the house was returned to Guo's family, who swore to renovate it.

In spite of his determination and knowledge as a civil engineer, Guo no longer had the strength to and could not afford to repair the building.

Some insiders said the cost alone to prevent Shuyinlou from toppling would amount to 1 million yuan (US$120,000). If Guo wants to see the recurrence of Shuyinlou's glorious past, he must spend 10 times the amount.

Despite the money shortage, Guo refused the municipal government's offer to help several times because of a fear he would lose ownership.

In fact, the local government has discussed the matter with Guo's family. A condition of the building's maintenance by the State is a new home and adequate compensation for Guo.

All the family members except Guo agreed to the offer. But Guo said: "The building is the only legacy my ancestors bestowed upon me, I must live and even die in it. I will never sell it."

Guo has even shut out architects who were keen to undertake small repairs for free, to protect the building from collapsing in bad weather.

Guo believed they had come to confiscate his home.

"But the municipality should send a team to repair the house for the sake of better protection and urge the owner to maintain it in good condition," Ruan said. "If the owner doesn't, he should receive some punishment."

However, Zheng Shiling, vice president of the Architectural Society of Shanghai, believes such a dilemma can only be solved by the third party.

Zheng said: "In many foreign countries with rich historic relics, several funds will be established and a committee will be selected by the public to run the funds. The public can also vote on what kind of architectures will need sponsorship."

Therefore, the money to repair and refurbish the old buildings in Shanghai can be raised and used properly without interfering with the property rights of owners.

Yet Guo cannot accept Zheng's suggestion either.

One year ago, representatives from a fund established in the Netherlands, which is dedicated to the protection of world famous cultural relics, came to Guo's aid to repair his house - he again turned down the offer.

On the other hand, Zheng also suggests the municipality should enhance officials' awareness of preserving the old architecture.

"To date, the criteria to judge our officials always emphasized on how many new buildings they have initiated and how many old they have pulled down."

Some of the seemingly worn-out buildings have historical value.

"Before the officials start the facelift projects of those old areas, they should first learn how many pieces of important memories might be left in oblivion," Zheng said.

Zheng hopes the assessment of officials' performance could also include how many historic relics they have preserved.

After the new rules on protecting important historical architectures was issued, officials took a more active part in the protection work, Zheng noted.

The Shanghai Municipal Administration of Cultural Heritage recently sent a group of engineers to repair Guo's home as part of a project that is expected to take at least three years.

Nevertheless, Yang said work should be done to amend the loopholes in the law to improve it.

He said: "At present, the revised national historic relics protection law hasn't come out, thus making the protection work difficult as we have no guidance when dealing with tough situations."

( China Daily August 6, 2002)