In the historic village of Shanchang in east Zhuhai, children can be seen scrabbling through the debris of ancient village temples and houses for artefacts. The large red Chinese characters designating heritage sites are observed only by thieves, who use them to zero in on plunder. They raid the unguarded houses, carrying off china, furniture, doors, windows, screens and ancient coins. And they're not wasting any time because the village is being flattened by bulldozers sent by a property company. Asked what she was doing, a basket-carrying girl, barely 10 years old, said proudly: 'These [the china in her basket] are for money. My dad sold stuff for 600 yuan yesterday.' Dating back to at least the 10th century, the village in Xiangzhou district had weathered the storms of human folly, including the Cultural Revolution. But it's Zhuhai's growing appetite for urban development that is now bulldozing it into history. Shanchang is believed to be the site of the earliest human settlement in the Zhuhai, Macau and Zhongshan city region and has 22 recognised heritage sites - temples, mansions and sculptures rich in cultural and architectural beauty. Only last spring, the Xiangzhou Cultural Bureau marked them with the red Chinese character for 'wen', short for 'heritage'. But Shanchang is also one of 26 Zhuhai villages in a gigantic Urban Villages Reconstruction Project, involving billions of yuan and the resettlement of 200,000 people. Begun in 2000, the project, which represents part of Zhuhai's ambition to become an international city, will eventually result in new buildings totalling 5.7 million square metres of floor space worth an estimated 20 billion yuan. The demolition of Shanchang, to make way for new buildings of nearly 200,000 square metres in floor area, began last month and is scheduled to be completed by next month. The Xiangzhou Cultural Bureau seems powerless to stop the developer, who has the approval of the city government and the district government to go ahead. Although most of the 2,300 villagers moved out of the 31-hectare site earlier this year, a few hardy souls are lingering to fight a losing battle. They're led by a little man in a red baseball cap who strides past roaring bulldozers and through the swirling dust clouds on the demolition site, recording the destruction with his 10kg camcorder. Villager Wu Liufang, 46, has put aside tending his small electronics store to film the damage and lobby authorities. He's sent footage and petitions to government departments and officials in Zhuhai, but he's hit one brick wall after another. 'I can't bear seeing my ancestors' legacies robbed like this,' he said. 'It's the birthmark of our city that they're destroying.' As early as the Tang dynasty (618-907), a township occupied the site of today's Shanchang. The Beidi Temple, the village's oldest heritage site, was erected in the Tang dynasty to honour a Taoist god. It's the only structure in Shanchang that the government and the developer, Wuzhou Property, have agreed to keep. However, there are 21 other heritage sites, including ancestral temples and mansions dating back to the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. A prominent mansion among them was the residence of poet-calligrapher Bao Jun (1797-1851), one of the best known Guangdong literati of the Qing dynasty. Many structures in the village feature beautiful ancient designs, some built using rare timber imported from Indonesia several hundred years ago. An ornamental arch and a stone lion sculpture are also regarded as precious relics. 'Shanchang should be kept as the cultural landmark of Zhuhai in recognition of its historical status as the cultural and political hub of the region,' said Zhang Fating, a renowned calligrapher who has been researching Shanchang culture for 10 years. Mr Zhang said the village formed an integral cultural habitat with Shixi, a stone-carving calligraphy site on the mountain behind it. But the untended Shixi site has also been despoiled by vagrants who dry their laundry and even defecate on the inscribed stones. Zhuhai historian Liang Zhenxing, who declined to be interviewed for this story, is recorded on Wu Liufang's camcorder as saying that Shanchang was home to the earliest human settlement in the region of Zhuhai, Macau and Zhongshan. But now the village looks like a war zone. Even before the bulldozers reach it, the residence of Bao Jun has become a stinking site of rubble and rubbish. Insects inhabit the ruins; doors and windows are all missing and some bricks have apparently been stolen from the walls. Other heritage houses are in no better condition. 'Things go missing every single day,' said Wu Liufang, of the rampant theft from the sites. 'It's heart-breaking to see the damage [to Shanchang],' said Mr Zhang. 'Reconstruction may be good for changing some dirty corners, but we must make sure our heritage is preserved in the first place.' Mr Zhang said, given the village's long history, more artefacts may remain buried. He called for a thorough assessment of Shanchang's relics followed by genuine efforts to preserve them. 'We cannot afford a day's delay,' he said, 'If [the heritage sites] get ruined in 2006, how are we going to explain it away to our future generations?' Two ancestral temples still to fall to the bulldozers have been occupied by dozens of migrant workers, whose laundry hangs amid the wood-fire smoke. They're just some of the thousands of migrant workers and vagabonds living in the village, despite the ongoing demolition. Rumours abound among them that thieves have made millions of yuan selling off Shanchang's heritage objects. While photographing an ancestral temple, a South China Morning Post reporter was consulted by thugs about the value of a roof beam, contemplating if it was worth stealing. The Zhuhai government's communications office has declined to comment. Pan Heng, director of the heritage department of the Zhuhai Cultural Bureau, said his department had done what needed to be done. 'We have protected all that needs to be protected. Only the Beidi Temple is protected by law,' he said, 'The Cultural Bureau of Xiangzhou district [where Shanchang is located] will dismantle some houses and move them elsewhere for rebuilding. You have to ask them for details.' A deputy director of the Xiangzhou Cultural Bureau declined to comment. A Museum of Zhuhai departmental head said the Zhuhai government was not spending enough on heritage preservation. Zhuhai spends about 1.5 million yuan a year. By comparison, neighbouring Macau spends about 20 million patacas a year on heritage preservation. It's understood that Xiangzhou Cultural Bureau had intended to relocate some Shanchang mansions, but lack of funding had prevented it from doing so. The Urban Villages Reconstruction Project, on the other hand, is pouring huge wealth into government coffers. The project boosted Xiangzhou district's tax revenue by more than 50 per cent in 2001, according to state media. In 2001, Wuzhou Property won the contract to develop Shanchang, with little promise to preserve heritage in its bid; it offered to keep the Beidi Temple while demolishing all other sites. The bid by another developer who offered to preserve all 22 heritage sites failed. Ruan Jun, general manager of Wuzhou Property, said the company had followed government requirements regarding heritage preservation. An official at Zhuhai's Urban Villages Reconstruction Office, which is in charge of the 26 villages' makeover, said his office had no responsibility to preserve heritage sites. 'We don't have the responsibility [of heritage protection] ... We can only coordinate with the developers and ask them not to destroy some houses,' he said. 'There are many reasons a company wins a bid. Not just heritage protection. The villagers' interests are also very important.' But many villagers said they were unhappy with resettlement arrangements. Although the Cultural Revolution destroyed many 'superstitious' objects in Shanchang, the havoc it created was no match for what is going on today, according to some old villagers. In Wu Liufang's video, a 92-year-old woman villager, tears rolling down her cheeks, said: 'The Japanese invaders did not mob my house like that. How can they do this?' Shanchang villagers staged Zhuhai's largest protest in recent years in 2001. More than 1,000 of them demonstrated outside the government headquarters against what they saw as unfair resettlement arrangements. Wu Liufang and a few other villagers have so far spent more than 100,000 yuan fighting their uphill battle, and his camcorder has churned out 29 tapes. Still, the roaring bulldozers and scurrying thieves remain unstoppable. But the little man in the red baseball cap vows to fight to the village's end.