Zhang Fan’s home sits opposite a public toilet, down a grimy, dilapidated hutong, one of the hundreds of alleyways that make up Beijing’s old town. On the street outside a recycling salesman ambles by on a tricycle, while residents sit on stools holding songbirds in cages.
As Zhang is one of a new breed of Chinese nouveau riche, it is surprising that little distinguishes the outside of her siheyuan, or courtyard home, from the ramshackle grey buildings that surround it. Yet, beyond her brass doors an oasis of opulence awaits.
Security cameras scan the yard, a glass elevator leads down from the courtyard to a vast basement karaoke room and home cinema, and the master bathroom is replete with swirling marble columns and a Jacuzzi.
Zhang, 33, runs the courtyard branch of estate agency Shun Yi Xing in Beijing. The 325-metre siheyuan, which Zhang bought for Rmb4m (£393,300) in 2007 and has, to date, spent between Rmb5m and Rmb6m renovating, is both her home and sample room. She offers China’s super-rich a return to their roots while throwing in 21st-century comforts such as air conditioning, built-in sound systems, walk-in wardrobes, and space for a live-in ayi or cleaner.
Since the 1980s, when the wealthy started moving to new residential areas, hutongs have been increasingly associated with poverty. Some siheyuans have been divided between as many as nine families, each living in cramped conditions without running water, toilets or heating. Dating the siheyuans can be tricky because, though the layouts of some hutongs date back to the 13th century, the buildings are a mish-mash of different eras. Most were built during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), with some constructed as recently as the 1940s. Despite their history, many hutongs were torn down during the urban redevelopment drive in the 1990s.
Awareness of conservation issues is slowly gaining traction but small-scale demolition continues to eat up the old city. While grassroots gentrification is helping to save some hutongs, China’s drive for modernity has led to many more being knocked down and rebuilt in the “old style”. According to the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center (CHP) only one-third of Beijing’s siheyuans remain. CHP’s founder and chairman He Shuzhong believes that firms such as Shun Yi Xing, which tear down and rebuild courtyards in order to resell them for extortionate prices, “destroy courtyard culture”. Whatever one thinks of the tear-down-and-rebuild attitude, renovations have made it possible for some to enjoy a Chinese style of living with all the modern amenities. Flourishes such as indoor murals, use of bamboo and glass, and, in one case, a moat filled with goldfish encircling the inner courtyard, are all hidden behind a red wooden doorway.
For many, the growing popularity of courtyards among China’s elite signals a renewed confidence in the country’s design heritage and a move away from valuing European architecture.
Above all, China’s rich list continues to grow, with recent figures suggesting the country now has more than 2.7m high net worth individuals. They have an average age of 39 and personal assets worth more than Rmb6m. Owning a renovated courtyard has come to signify extreme affluence.
According to Zhang’s assistant, Tang Benfang, costs per square metre now range from Rmb60,000 to Rmb100,000, up from around Rmb15,000 in 2007. An additional cost of Rmb5,000-6,000 per sq m for renovations (excluding the windows and doors, which are considered part of the interior design) must also be factored in. For some owners, preserving the building’s heritage is paramount; for others, history is sacrificed for more contemporary fashions.
For Zhang, this means providing her clients with personalised design touches that do not always conform to the orthodox layout. Examples in her own courtyard include an outdoor wooden pavilion – built at the cost of Rmb100,000 and decorated with gold leaf from the former capital Nanjing – and a fake rock garden with plastic trees, rocks, and grass.
“I want my clients to see they don’t just buy scrap. Courtyards can look great after redecoration,” she says.
Designed siheyuans are becoming increasingly scarce. Retired property developer Yang An, 62, says “courtyards are precious now. Western buildings are everywhere. Houses like [mine], built purely of wood, are rare.”
Yang bought his courtyard 10 years ago for Rmb10m, spent another Rmb2-3m on renovations, and today says it is worth over Rmb100m. While his chauffeur, cook and cleaner live in the south wing, he takes prime position in the northern pavilion – traditionally reserved for the most important member of the house. Qing Dynasty vases are on display and priceless original scrolls by the eminent calligraphers and reformers Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao hang on the wall.
Design centred around China’s heritage is on the rise, says Lyndon Neri, founding partner of Shanghai-based Neri & Hu Design and Research Office. “Ten years ago with a boom of the economy, it was all about the most expensive materials: ‘let’s have 20 chandeliers in one room. Let’s have gilded wrought iron in the ceiling’,” he says. “[But] there are many people [today] who have this gravitation towards simplicity, towards real materials, towards preserving what is old.”
Venezuelan architect Antonio Ochoa, who has worked in Beijing for more than 20 years, agrees. “More people have developed a kind of positive conscience about preservation and the real feeling of living in a way closer to their roots,” he says.
Ochoa believes that most Beijingers “have memories of poverty, dirt, and pain associated with these houses”. Despite this, he has created a new type of courtyard for clients while trying to stay true to their spirit. Like Zhang, he knocks down derelict siheyuans, but uses the original bricks and roof tiles in the rebuild. Twists include the exposure of a high wooden ceiling (which previously would have been covered with rice paper to preserve heat) and indoor corridors between pavilions.
Salvaging authentic materials is not without challenges, however. Jean Yang, 49, hired Ochoa to design a 600 sq m courtyard off Beijing’s trendy Nanlouguxiang hutong.
She had bought old wood to use in the rebuild, but it mysteriously disappeared. In its place was a pile of new-looking wood. “I love old wood, so I said [to my builder], ‘where is it?’ He said: ‘I’m so scared, because it might have been used in someone’s toilet!’ ” The builder – who shares a common Chinese aversion to anything old and used – had sanded down each piece of wood to make it look new again.
Ms Yang, who is well travelled and influenced by foreign friends, says moving back to courtyards is largely a generational shift. Her parents, who lived in a siheyuan 18 years ago, are horrified by her decision.
She plans to mix antiques with contemporary designs in her home. She has collected intricately carved ancient wooden bed posts from Hebei province. Her living room will have exposed brick walls, a western fireplace and floor-to-ceiling windows. The siheyuan’s three consecutive courtyards will be linked by outdoor brick passageways and concealed indoor corridors. The lighting system, curtains, and heating, will be controlled by an iPad.
Peace is paramount – as epitomised by Ms Yang’s bedroom. Every day she will open the doors to see a thin pool of water trickling over black stone, reflecting the elements like a mirror.
“When Chinese people [used to] think about comfort, it was about a villa, western or French style. But I think lots of Chinese now like courtyards,” she says. “You have your sky, you have your ground and you are detached the moment you close the gate.”
Additional reporting by Catherine Zheng
Featured photograph: Zhang Fan’s courtyard home © Ben McMillan.