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Tale of two towns by the Yangtze
By Wu Chong (China Daily)
Updated: 2005-05-27 05:30

CHONGQING: This is a tale of two towns, sort of.

One is the 1,700-year-old Dachang Town in Chongqing Municipality, which will be submerged next year by rising waters from the Three Gorges dam project.

The other will be a replica - with buildings dismantled and rebuilt on a new site 5 kilometres away and uphill, literally transplanted.

And with regared to two residents of the ancient Dachang city, it's the best of times for one; and not quite so for the other.

Part of the town's grand relocation plan is to move the ancient city inside Dachang Town the largest old architectural complex in the Three Gorges area physically with almost every beam unchanged to the nearby new town; but to preserve its ambience, the current residents will not be allowed to live there.

Dachang Town in one of 127 towns which will be submerged by 2009 by the Three Gorges dam project. The ancient Dachang city, standing on the northern edge of the Daning River, is connected with the downtown area by a dirt road that runs through trees and small brick houses to its east.

At the arched east gate capped with a clump of grass, it appears that time has been turned back a few centuries.

Behind the gate is a T-shaped street stretching 150 metres from north to south and 240 metres from east to west.

The narrow street is lined by 37 big ancient houses built in grey bricks and wooden planks Anhui-style architecture that typically features carved beams and upturned eaves. The houses have deck roofs to keep the rain out and movable planks on the front gate so that goods can be moved in or out, which helped doing business.

Outside the south gate next to a centuries-old tree is a small dock "guarded" by two stone lions. The rising river has already submerged the bottom steps of the dock.

Zhu Guangjian seems happy to be moving out. His family is one of eight of the 100 families in the town which have made the decision - three have moved to other provinces and the other five have bought new flats in the new town.

Zhu's ancestors migrated to Dachang almost 300 years ago from Hubei or Hunan, and built a 200-square-metre house near the east gate of the city.

"My ancestors were all business people," says Zhu, who seems to have inherited their talent for doing business.

He runs a restaurant named "Gu Cheng Ren Jia" (Ancient City's Family) and earns a good living by taking advantage of the city's charm.

"In the high season for tourists, we make a monthly income of more than 1,000 yuan (US$121)," reveals Shen Deyong, Zhu's wife. The average per capita monthly income of the town is about half.

After relocation, they plan to reopen the restaurant on the ground floor of an 80-square-metre two-storey flat.

"I envision more tourists coming after the local government promotes the 'ancient city' as a new attraction," said Zhu.

Zhu, like his neighbours, has a strong attachment to his old home but "it is so old that sometimes it has become a burden. The roof was leaking during the rainy season."

In the past decade, the house has been renovated five times. "Since it is on the protected list, we could not rebuild it," Zhu adds.

Also, because of the construction of the dam, the ancient city was affected by floods during recent summers.

"Sooner or later, we have to move. Why not move earlier?" Zhu asks.

While the couple's only concern is that they cannot continue to live in their home in the new "ancient city," they say they understand the government's purpose of better protecting the relics and believe that they will receive reasonable compensation.

For 63-year-old Wen Guanglin, however, the thought of moving out of his ancestral house, built in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), fills him with dread.

These days, he sits outside the 300-year-old house, gazing longingly at the wood-and-brick structure which covers an area of 320 square metres beside the Yangtze River. He may well enjoy the pleasant weather now because next spring it will move house, so to speak.

Wen's house, as it is known, was built by his ancestors who had moved from Guangdong Province in the early Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and stands proudly on the street which has houses built during the early Ming Dynasty.

"I don't want to move out of the old house," says Wen, speaking in a strong local accent, as he stands near his house near the city's southern gate.

Wen's house is the largest in the ancient, once-bustling and prosperous city, which used to be inhabited by high-ranking officials their descendants still walk with their hands clasped behind their backs.

Wen's ancestor, who used to be a senior official in Guangdong Province during the Qing Dynasty, moved to Dachang along with an influx of migrants from Guangdong, Hunan and Hubei provinces centuries ago and built the house with hollow bricks and adorned by deck roofs and upturned eaves which has been passed down 11 generations.

Behind the front gate, above which hangs a black board written with four golden characters - Wen Jia Da Yuan (Wen's House) - and four red lanterns, are three spacious halls, two yards and some small rooms decorated with several carved wood windows.

Inside are several antiques from the Qing Dynasty, including a loom, a wooden rice mortar, a bed, a dressing table and some chairs.

Wen, who lives with his wife and the three-member family of his second son, can't conceal his deep attachment to the old house: "I can draw every beam and brick even with my eyes closed."

In his view, the house has many advantages that modern flats he would have to move into one can never match: big, well ventilated, cool in summer and close to nature. A few minutes' walk from his house lies the Daning River, whose banks are spread with farmland, grass, trees and flowers.

During the Mid-Autumn Festival, the whole family sits in one of the small yards inside the house and gaze at the full moon.

"How I wish my sons and my grandchildren would inherit the house!" Wen exclaims wistfully.

The family of his eldeest son moved to Guangdong four years ago as the town's residents started leaving the town.

His second son Wen Mingliang continues his father's business of selling home-made tofu (bean curd) in the town.

"Both my brother and I prefer living in the house because it is much more spacious and comfortable than high buildings and much closer to the river," Wen Mingliang says.

The brothers share fond memories of playing hide-and-seek with their companions and lying under the sun on the river bank.

For 8-year-old Wen Yuanhang, Wen Mingliang's son, his favourite place is the yard in the centre of the house, where he usually does homework under natural light.

It's not just missing the house that the family worries it is also a source of income. Since 1992, when the house was declared a cultural relic, the family has opened part of it to tourists with the ticket price increasing from 2 yuan (24 US cents) to 8 yuan (97 US cents).

They receive an average of 10 visitors a day, who contribute a significant sum to the family's kitty.

Wen Guanglin would like the family to earn an income from the house when it is moved but has not yet received any reply from the government.

Some of Wen's neighbours, too, are worried about their livelihood when they move out. "I don't know what to live on," says Chen Shi'an, 81, who feeds the family by cultivating a small piece of farmland behind his house.

The problem is that the law does not allow the transfer, mortgage or sale of cultural relics; and the residents want substantial compensation.

"But who can fix a price for these priceless relics?" asks Li Jitang, a local government official, who is not sure of the compensation to be paid.

(China Daily 05/27/2005 page5)

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