Traditional chinese houses – from the countryside into the city (with million dollar profits too)


Old houses in China’s countryside are being dismantled and reassembled for the nation’s new rich.

Very interesting article in the China daily talking about the resale market for Ming and Qing dynasty Chinese traditional homes which are disassembled, transported, repaired and then resold to restaurants, clubs or wealthy collectors.  Now this is an interesting topic which I could easily get lost in as it just touches on so many interesting elements from Hui Zhou architecture to Chinese antique restorations to wooden architectural carvings.

Huizhou architecture - Chinese traditional homes

The article  is basically a slimmed down version of another Chinese language article floating around the net. Its not a bad article, though it leaves out some of the more interesting details like such as how the industry works.

For example, the middlemen buyers tend to be divided up amongst two categories: those with ample capital and those who as essentially un-financed. Essentially those who are “un-financed” will buy the house and resell it right away to recoup their investment at a 20 to 30% profit margin. “Financed sellers” are those who have enough spare capital to buy the house, undertake all the repair and restoration work and then resell it in restored form at a 40 to 50 % profit.

The other interesting aspect left out is detail on how much time and effort goes into the whole process.  One home took ten workers several weeks just to disassemble and haul away it away piece by piece in a dozen different large trucks. Quite a task considering each individual piece from support beams to wood carvings to stone had to be meticulously tagged and documented in order to be reassembled off-site. Before restoration can even start, a methodical checking of each piece had to be made to determine which wood must be replaced, which carvings repaired etc. Then there is the restoration and reassembly itself – a complex process involving carpentry, masonry, painters and wood carvers.

An old chinese courtyard home being reassembled and restored

What’s interesting is the trade has moved online as well, with websites listing both complete homes (in restored and un-restored form) as well as individual salvaged components like ornate wooden architectural carvings, brick carvings, stone and even reclaimed wood.

A traditional chinese courtyard home for sale

The China daily version is below – still a fascinating read. For the brave, here is also the more complete Chinese language version of the article.

Show homes
2011-07-28 08:02
By Xu Junqian (China Daily)

Old houses in the Yangtze River Delta’s countryside are being dismantled and reassembled for display in the gardens of the nation’s new rich. Xu Junqian reports.

At a hidden warehouse, on a vast expanse of open moorland in Dongyang, Zhejiang province (在(浙江)东阳市歌山镇西宅村), a group of middle-aged carpenters are busy working on a pile of pillars and corbels, beams and windows. Spread over the 10,000-square-meter clandestine locale that has no name or address – marked only by a muddy path – they have been carefully dismantled from century-old houses scattered throughout the Yangtze River Delta countryside.

Once reassembled, they will move into the gardens of the country’s nouveau riche.Tired of filling their working and living rooms with antique vases, ink paintings, calligraphy and 19th-century hardwood furniture, the emerging upper class is looking for something new to show off their wealth and cultural sensitivities.

And buying these quaint houses that date back to as early as the Ming (1368-1644) or Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, is becoming a popular choice.

The trend has been growing in the recent years, Zhang Zhu’an (张祝安), co-owner of the nameless warehouse site, says. “More people, including the not-so-affluent, are seeing them as an investment.”

These ancient houses can range from 300 to 400 square meters, with some even reaching 1,000 square meters. While they rival the size of the buyers’ homes, these collectors’ items are mostly for display.

Zhang, a 61-year-old Dongyang native, and his partner, the main investor of the warehouse, started the business three years ago. Although the carpenter-turned-businessman sidesteps questions about how lucrative the business is, he acknowledges it has been “acceptable” from the beginning. Now, they sell one house every two or three months.

The older the house, the pricier it gets, Zhang says. “But the style of the house, its condition or the status of its former owner – say he is a famous political figure – can also add to the value.”

With a team of about 10 carpenters, who double as porters, Zhang’s warehouse is the biggest of its kind in Zhejiang and possibly in the country.

A rebuilt chinese traditional home for sale

Over the past few years, more than 10 houses have been relocated from remote villages to be reassembled and refurbished in the warehouse and then dispatched to the properties of affluent buyers in Hangzhou, Shanghai and even as far away as Beijing.

old chinese home
After restoration, this Qing Dynasty courtyard will sell for more then ten million RMB

Currently, there are nine houses here, some of which are ready to be “taken away”. Most are typical southern Chinese residences, featuring upturned eaves, elaborate woodcarvings and thick and straight pillars.

“This one is not that ancient. It dates from the end of the Qing Dynasty,” says a 49-year-old carpenter, surnamed Pan, referring to a door from a typical Anhui-style house, currently the most popular variety on the market, that he has been working on for five weeks.

“I heard the whole house was bought for several hundred thousands yuan. But this door alone can be sold for more than 10 million yuan ($1.55 million) after I’m done with polishing it,” Pan says.

There are about five or six similar warehouses in Dongyang, a city best known for its ancient craft of woodcarving, Zhang says. Just a few meters from his site is a similar, but much smaller, warehouse with four dismantled houses.

“People may think it is easy to start a business like this because of a huge supply of carpenters here,” Zhang says. “But good houses are becoming increasingly hard to find, as they have either been taken apart by collectors or demolished by their owners to make way for new modern buildings.”

Zhang says that while his special “hunting crew” travels the country looking for houses, he also networks with furniture recyclers and secondhand storeowners in the area.”If they come to know of someone who wants to sell his house, they will immediately call me,” Zhang says, adding that he only goes for structures that are at least 70 percent intact.

“For the province’s growing number of rich people, such houses represent the ultimate collectors’ item,” says Yu Feng, vice-chairman of Collection Association Club of Yiwu, the city neighboring Dongyang.

“After all, the vases, paintings and precious chairs need a place where they can be put. And what better choice than a heritage house,” Yu says.

The club, founded in 2005, has about 300 members in Yiwu. As the world’s largest small commodity center, it attracts hordes of the parvenus.

Every year, they host exhibitions to showcase their art collections. An antiques market that can accommodate 500 stalls also opened earlier this year.

“I can’t say how many people are doing this (collecting houses), as we don’t have such figures in the club,” says Yu, whose own collection includes five houses.

They occupy a 2,000-square-meter space that the logistics tycoon has specially rented.According to some industry insiders, a Yiwu businessman has 100 such homes from all over the country in his collection.”If you start early enough, you can get a house for no more than 50,000 yuan,” Yu says.But with more people entering the market, the average price has easily doubled.

By Xu Junqian (China Daily)

The profit for middlemen like Zhang has dropped from 50 to about 30 percent of the price.For Yu and others like him, the biggest headache remains finding a place for their house collections. “After all, it’s not that easy to buy land. And once you move a house, it’s not likely you can do so again,” Yu says.

But even as some worry about where to put their gigantic collections, others have found ways to make money out of them.
Zhu Youfu, a retired local official in Yiwu’s Fotang village has turned his collection – worth millions of yuan – into a tourist attraction in his hometown.

huizhou wood carvings

With a nearly 1,000-square-meter house built at the beginning of the 1800s and several other smaller ones, the site has become a recreational complex that also offers dining, accommodation and sightseeing.
Yang Handong, meanwhile, is more generous with sharing his collection.Yang is the owner of Hujiang Group, the country’s biggest thread producer, which is also based in Yiwu.

Apart from an underground museum that is home to 300 old vases and paintings located below the teahouse he runs, the antiques aficionado has also built a park behind his factory for his seven heritage houses. Admission is free to the public.

The purchase of old houses can be controversial.

Chen Rongjun, director of Dongyang Relic Protection Office, says that although it is legitimate to buy these houses not categorized as “relics under protection”, the houses, which are one of the few legacies of the local culture, become “dead” once they leave their original locations.

According to the local government, only 207 homes in the area are categorized as “relics under protection”, leaving 1,560 houses labeled as just “relics”, for not meeting one or another of the protection category standards.

“Homes with historical value are disappearing fast. More villagers are willing to exchange their homes for money to build new villas, and we are not there to stop them,” Chen says.But Zhang, the middleman, is defensive. “We are far more professional than the owners while dealing with these houses, which are usually in a seriously dilapidated state when they come to us,” he says.

“It’s true we are making money from them but not by tearing them down,” he adds. “Rather, we are restoring them to their former glory, which is definitely better than letting them suffer further wear and tear.”

Other online resources:

The Hong Kong Heritage Museum’s exhibition of Huizhou vernacular architecture. There is a great book from this exhibition available at the museum shop, however I have never seen it for sale online.
Chinese home at the The Peabody Essex Museum The Peabody Essex Museum’s “Yin Yu Tang” is a qing dynasty home on permanent exhibit at the museum. The home can be explored online via a very cool interactive guide. and are Chinese websites specializing in the sale of reclaimed and rebuilt traditional chinese homes (the sites are in Chinese only). The forum section is quite fascinating..
google image search in Chinese for Huishou style wood carvings.


4 Replies to “Traditional chinese houses – from the countryside into the city (with million dollar profits too)”

  1. Someone thinks this story is fantastic…

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  3. I am really that amazed with these houses and it really proves that Chinese people are really that creative in building houses as I’ve noticed. I’m sure that these houses are really that expensive because of its unique structures.

  4. The houses do look amazing. A lot of talent has been placed into making these houses and a lot of people would think it is a great honor to own one. I think the business is amazing and it is a great way of preserving history at the same time giving a lot of house enthusiasts an opportunity to own one.

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