Ruining an ethnic identity in the name of progress

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 May, 2012, 12:00am


Reconstruction efforts in Wenchuan county's ethnic Qiang villages in the four years since the Sichuan earthquake have come under fire for devastating the area's distinct cultural identity.

At issue are government programmes that required residents of Aer village to demolish traditional stone houses that may have received little damage from the magnitude 8 quake in 2008 and build modern structures of concrete and steel.

Residents needed to use the new materials to qualify for subsidies ranging from 18,000 yuan to 23,000 yuan (HK$22,120 to HK$28,260).

'These traditional stone-made houses were actually firmer and more solid than concrete houses,' Zhang Yuan , a researcher on ethnic minorities from Southwest University for Nationalities in Chengdu , told the Century Weekly's online portal. 'You only find cracks in them, when most of the modern buildings toppled in the earthquake.'

Zhang similarly faulted a reconstruction project launched by Hong Kong Red Cross in 2009 for altering the area's distinct appearance by using only modern building materials. The scramble for building subsidies set off a local construction boom.

Eleanor Lam Chuen-ping, Hong Kong Red Cross' head of field operations for Sichuan, said it was involved in only one reconstruction project in the village and had respected the local government and people's choices. 'We don't have any requirement on building style. We only require that the new houses be able to resist a certain level of earthquake and have a proper size,' Lam said.

The survival of the struggling Qiang community has been a leading concern for activists, academics and aid workers since the quake struck the centre of the group's traditional homeland and wiped out, by some estimates, 10 per cent of its 320,000 people.

Traditional Qiang houses are generally made of granite blocks piled two to three storeys high. The ground floor is reserved for livestock. Residents live on the second floor and store grain on the third,.

Faced with complaints about the village's modern makeover, authorities launched an effort in 2010 to restore some cultural elements. But the efforts only further upset villagers, who felt exterior home painting done largely by Han tradesmen seemed more African than Qiang.

Villagers also complained that they had not received enough money to repair the key cultural features, such as the temple, altar and blockhouses.

Some residents are annoyed by NGO workers, academics and journalists who flocked to the Qiang villages after the quake but have achieved little of what they said was their aim to preserve the area's unique culture.

Oxfam project manager Liu Yuan said rebuilding Qiang communities without respect to their culture represented a second catastrophe to the ethnic minority.

'Houses, human beings, gods and ancestors together form the Qiang minority's homeland,' The Southern Metropolis News quoted Liu as saying yesterday.

'You can't simply rebuild the houses and exploit the village as a tourist attraction without respecting villagers' wishes.'

Zhang said further reconstruction projects in the quake zone must include input from local residents as well as experts.

'You can't do it without the involvement of local villagers, showing true respect and understanding to the local communities,' Zhang said.