Families who’ve lived in old Chinese town for generations being kicked out to make way for tourists

6 billion yuan project will turn picturesque Chikan, close to World Heritage-listed Kaiping diaolous, into historical theme park

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 August, 2017, 9:02am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 August, 2017, 12:08pm

Close to 4,000 households are being forced out of a centuries-old town on the western edge of the Pearl River Delta by their local government, which has teamed up with an investment firm to turn it into a tourist attraction.

It’s not what the residents of Chikan’s old town expected when the nearby Kaiping diaolous – fortified, multi-storey dwellings – were put on the World Heritage List by Unesco in 2007.

The riverfront town – known, like the diaolous, for a unique blend of Western and Chinese architectural styles – was eerily quiet last month, with seven residents telling the South China Morning Post the local government had disrupted roads and blocked bridges to encourage people to accept compensation payments and leave.

The Kaiping city government says it has signed a 6 billion yuan (US$899 million) deal with Citic Private Equity Funds Managementto redevelop the town.

The city government is eager to attract more tourists. Kaiping has a population of 670,000 but it attracted nearly 6 million tourists last year, drawn by its famous diaolous, and they contributed 6.3 billion yuan to the local economy.

It hopes 7 million people will be visiting the redeveloped Chikan old town, with its boutique shops and hotels, each year by 2020. It’s an ambitious target, given that close to 7.5 million tourists visit the Palace of Versailles, on the outskirts of Paris, each year.

Kaiping vice-mayor Chen Jiewen, the man in charge of the Chikan project, told the Jiangmen Daily in December that the local government had decided to evict all the residents of Chikan old town in the interests of “heritage protection”. Because the old town urgently needed repairing, the local government, short of funds, had to “borrow a hand” from Citic Private Equity, he said.

The project, announced in April and scheduled to commence in the fourth quarter of this year, aims to make Chikan one of China’s top historical and cultural tourism destinations. The families who’ve called it home for generations are not impressed.

About half the households in the old town are resisting pressure to sign compensation and relocation agreements, while the authorities have disrupted road access – leaving the town’s bus and coach station deserted – and boarded up buildings.

“I’m 70 years old and was born in a two-storey building here in the centre of the old town that my grandfather’s father built on the banks of the beautiful river,” Chikan resident Jian Jian said. “Now the authorities are only paying me 500,000 yuan in total ... the compensation is so poor, and not enough to buy a decent property of a similar size in the city.

“Chikan is the hometown for many Hong Kong people and Chinese overseas. We were born here, grew up here and are getting old here.

“None of the residents were willing to sell our properties and move out, but we’ve been forced to say yes. You see, they [officials] have broken up the surface of the roads to the town [in the name of maintenance] and closed the bus station. Tour groups from Hong Kong and the Pearl River Delta cannot easily arrive here now. Formerly thriving shops have closed down and their owners have moved out because of the poor business.”

According to the city government’s plan, Chikan old town will be turned into a historical theme park, like Wuzhen in Zhejiang province, with hotels, cafes, bars and shops. The Wuzhen project’s chief designer, Chen Xianghong, has been given the same role for the Chikan old town redevelopment.

No residents will be allowed to remain.

The eviction of residents and the likelihood that property developers would move in to fill the vacuum could be seen as just one more bad example of Chinese state capitalism’s focus on rapid economic growth and neglect of local lifestyles and culture, said Simon Zhao, founding director of the International Centre for China Development Studies at Hong Kong University.

“Heritage protection is the responsibility of any government to preserve the culture, heritage and local character of the country for future generations,” Zhao said. “But if a renovation project, in the name of heritage protection, actually evicts locals and denies their rights and ownership in sharing the future benefits, it’s bad governance.”

While China has pride in its long history, the country’s pursuit of rapid economic development has led to the destruction or endangerment of much of its architectural heritage – ironically often in the name of protection or preservation.

A national archaeological survey conducted in 2011 by China’s State Administration of Cultural Heritage found that 44,000 of the 766,700 immovable cultural relics on record had been lost, largely due to development, since 1985.

Local governments and well-connected investors have turned many natural and historical heritage sites into ticket-hawking, moneymaking machines. More than a dozen are listed on Chinese stock markets, including the companies managing the Zhangjiajie national park in Hunan, part of the World Heritage-listed Wulingyuan Scenic and Historic Interest Area, and two other World Heritage sites: Emeishan in Sichuan, known for its many ancient Buddhist temples, and Huangshan in Anhui, which Unesco says has often been described as the “loveliest mountain in China”.

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Some redevelopments of old town areas have boosted tourism, including Wuzhen, a once-sleepy town on the Grand Canal. Wuzhen’s transformation began in 1999 and it now attracts close to 7 million visitors a year. An adult admission ticket costs 200 yuan.

But Wuzhen’s original residents were evicted, as were those in another tourism success story, the World Heritage-listed Old Town of Lijiang in Yunnan, formerly home to the Naxi ethnic minority.

Geng Yanbo, the mayor of Datong, in Shanxi, flattened its whole old town in 2008 and relocated millions of people to make way for a brand new “ancient city” with a city wall supported by a steel framework. That effort earned him the nickname “Geng Smash Smash”.

Chikan old town is just a few kilometres away from the World Heritage-listed diaolous – more than 1,800 multi-storey watchtowers that dot the rice fields. The first, no longer standing, was built in the beginning of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). The oldest extant diaolou, a squat, three-storey mini-fortress dating back to the mid-1500s, can be found in Chikan’s Sanmenli village.

The rows of historic qilou (arcade-houses) strung out along Chikan’s Tan riverfront, with the buildings and clouds reflected on the water, are one of southern China’s most impressive sights.

Unlike China’s renovated old towns, most of Chikan remains unadorned, with visitors free to wander its streets and vendors offering local specialties like tofu pudding, salted goose eggs and sun-dried orange peel. It’s like going back in time to 19th century Canton, with the local market and stalls a living museum.

The stately elegance of Li Yuan

Several famous Chinese movies, including Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster, Jiang Wen’s Let The Bullets Fly, and Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master II, were filmed in and around Chikan and part of the old town – now known as Chikan Movie and Television City – has already been renovated for tourists

The latest plan will cover about 4,000 historical buildings, many constructed in the 1920s and 1930s – when most of the surrounding diaolous were also built – by returning Chinese emigrants known as huaqiao (overseas Chinese) who had made their fortunes in places like the United States, Canada, Malaysia and Australia.

The renovation work will take at least two years, according to statements on the city government’s website.

Resident families are being offered between 3,200 and 3,900 yuan per square metre for their homes, and will also receive some relocations subsidies. But new housing in central Kaiping costs 6,000 to 7,000 yuan a square metre.

“The local government told us it’s good for local tourism and it’s taking our home,” a resident in his 20s said. “In the future, we won’t be able to live off rent and will have to be migrant workers elsewhere.

“When we come back, we’ll need to pay 100 or 200 yuan for an entry ticket to see our ancestral properties. What an ironic and sad story we’re struggling through.”

Zhao said the local authorities owed the residents a reasonable explanation for stripping them of their property ownership rights. “The impact of this project for locals is too big,” he said.

Kaiping watchtowers poised to join elite

At the beginning of the 20th century, Kaiping and nearby cities, like Taishan and Enping, became a major source of Chinese emigrants. Nearly 4 million Chinese living overseas in 107 countries and regions and in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan have their roots in the region, according to official data.

Most of the owners of its historical buildings are overseas Chinese or their descendants. Few are willing to sell their ancestral properties so cheaply, but residents said they’d been left with no way to negotiate better prices.

“A number of overseas Chinese representatives once tried to talk with the local foreign affairs and overseas Chinese affairs bureau but got no response,” one resident said.

Kaiping’s city government, its foreign affairs and overseas Chinese affairs bureau, Chikan’s town government and Citic Private Equity did not respond to requests for comment on the residents’ concerns.

Kaiping propaganda official Wang Lei told Nanfang Daily, the Communist Party’s official newspaper in Guangdong, in April that the cost of renovating old buildings was much higher than for newly built properties, and most residents could not afford it.

The report quoted the local authorities as saying the compensation offered was fair and had been evaluated by a third party. Many buildings in the town had been in a state of disrepair for many years, and the prices could not be compared with the high cost of new commercial properties in the city centre, according to the report.

Many former residents have been capturing images of the old town for posterity.

“I was born here but moved to Guangzhou for years,” Zhang Jie said. “After hearing the bad news, I rushed back to take as many photos as I can for the memories.”