Fine specimens of Republican-era architecture up for grabs Laurence Tsui turned an old Guangzhou villa from Republican-era China into a sensational wine lounge called the Mansion. A few blocks away, Stephen Zi refurbished another ageing Republican-era villa into a trendy commercial design and art gallery. They were among the pioneers and were lucky to get into the refurbishment business of the old villas in the city's Dongshan district a few years ago. Now developers are moving in fast on some 300 villas in the area, mainly fine specimens raised in the heyday of the city as the former capital of Republican China to house the sharp set that lived it up in four and five-storey villas. Dongshan was a stone's throw from the major seats of power at the time and served as a quaint residential district for lawmakers, tycoons and revolutionaries. Much like the storeyed watchtower estates that grace Kaiping, these mansions were erected by returning overseas Chinese in the late 19th century and early 20th century. After 1949 most of the original owners left the mainland and some of the villas were used as government offices while new residents moved into others. By about 2000 a few of the villas began to go on the market but it was not until 2005 that interest began to take off and by the end of 2006 the market value of the villas had surged to an average of three million yuan, according to Colliers International Property in Guangzhou. Ten villas that the government has released for sale this year are now on the market at 10 million yuan each, and in the view of Doris Lam, an associate director with Colliers' Guangzhou office, there could be more price rises to come. 'The villa prices will just keep rising in the coming year. If a villa comes up for sale, investors should buy immediately.' Among the first to set the trend for mixed commercial use of these properties was the Mansion, a 500 square metre, early 20th century villa with three floors and an enclosed yard. Mr Tsui and others redesigned the property into a posh wine lounge with large parlour mirrors and bead curtains separating private spaces furnished with soft sofas. But the lease - 50,000 yuan per month - was about to expire and so the entrepreneurs, one of whom is Sonny Doo (the Hong Kong Chamber of Commerce president in Guangzhou), closed their wine lounge down. Now the property is ripe for the plucking. Mr Tsui, who works as the general manager for Merryvale Management Consultant, said: 'It's a bit difficult to buy a Dongshan villa now. A lot more investors have them in their sights now.' There are other gems to be had but not without risk, Ms Lam says. 'The challenge of acquiring [these properties] includes overcoming regulations and unclear ownership.' Prospective buyers were also required to follow regulations regarding maintaining the historic facades of the old villas which could be a challenge given issues of repair. Pipes are rusty and structural reinforcements and replacement wiring imperative for the old brick buildings. Labour costs to conduct refurbishing was another quandary that a buyer or renter faced, warned Stephen Zi, who nevertheless accepted the challenges and put a design studio, the Wilber Gallery, in an old villa. His gallery, which opened in 2006, is also about 500 square metres on four levels. The ground floor has high ceilings and serves as the art gallery. Stairs wend up to an office area on the third floor and the fourth floor has an outdoor balcony that looks out on an enclosed courtyard. Both the former wine bar and the gallery refurbishments retained the spirit and architecture of the original villas, namely, spacious courtyards, gracious rooms with high ceilings and rooftop views. Other villas are being preserved by the Guangzhou government and the area is redolent with history, which led to the creation of an historic site walking tour in 2005 to view villas identified by stone commemorative plaques. Among the featured sites are three brick-and-concrete buildings, the 'Chunyuan Villas', which served as the Communist Party of China's headquarters after the leadership moved to Guangzhou from Shanghai in 1923. Nearby, tobacco tycoon Jian Qinshi created the Jiangyuan villas with fountains, gardens and European architecture. They also served as the former German consulate and were used as the personal residence of Tan Yankai, a senior official with the Kuomintang. The Ouyuan villas are a combination of British and Chinese styles, reflecting owner Wu Jingying's experience in the United States and Britain as a student. Mr Wu was famed as the chief warship designer for the Canton fleet in 1925. There is also a series of buildings, the Mingyuan villas, which feature Roman-style corridors. According to Colliers, there are other villas of similar character. Those that have been bought for private homes are owned largely by overseas Chinese, Hong Kong residents and, now, a few expatriates. Officially, the Guangzhou government is taking steps as part of a larger mainland price cooling campaign to make sure Dongshan's villas do not become the hottest properties for the time being. But try telling that to buyers.