The renovation of the former homes of a celebrated Shanghai cartoonist and a renowned playwright got under way this week after they were acquired by the Xuhui District government for 30 million yuan (US$4.8 million).
The apartments of cartoonist Zhang Leping — creator of the comic book character San Mao — and dramatist Ke Ling will be restored to recreate the living conditions of both men and exhibit some of their original works. They are expected to open to the public later this year.
China has a history of preserving the homes of its most celebrated citizens, but as costs rise, the task of restoring old properties becomes more onerous. Shanghai alone has more than 1,500 buildings that are the former residences of famous people, but about half are not in protection programs.
“It costs a lot to purchase the property rights,” Cai Wei, director of the historic building protection department in the Hunan Neighborhood Committee, told Shanghai Daily.
The Hunan neighborhood in Xuhui has more than 100 of these residences within its boundaries, including the Zhang and Ke homes now under renovation.
Zhang’s two-story apartment on Wuyuan Road will be finished in time to commemorate the 105th anniversary of the cartoonist’s birth. He lived at the address from 1950 until his death in 1992, creating a large body of work there.
A total of 285 items belonging to Zhang will be displayed at the residence, including a wooden Buddha statue that dates back to the 10th century.
Ke’s former residence on Fuxing Road West was built in 1933. It was already in a dilapidated condition when he lived there between 1959 and 2000.
The apartment was closed after his death due to a leaky roof and cracked walls.
Wang Anshi, an architectural expert with Shanghai’s Historic Building Protection Committee, said a major obstacle in preservation is the current ownership of target homes. They might be deeded to descendents of celebrities or even to people with no ties to the families. Some of the properties are rentals, and some are in a state of severe deterioration.
“Since most of the old buildings are wooden structures, they show a great deal of wear and tear after occupancy for so many years,” Wang said.
The former residence of Ba Jin, also known as Li Yaotang, who was one of the most widely read Chinese writers of the 20th century, was infested by termites when the Xuhui government bought it but is now a museum.
Often, it takes big compensation payments to convince owners to sell the properties for renovation.
The former home of Nie Er, composer of China’s national anthem, is a case in point.
His century-old former residence had to be demolished in 2012 because it had fallen into irreversible disrepair. The demolition came despite the historic protection authority’s insistence that the house on Gongping Road in the Hongkou District should be preserved.
Its residents at that time were only too happy to accept compensation and relocation.
Another high-profile case involves the former home of the famous Chinese painter Lin Fengmian, which ended up being used as a sex shop.
“It’s ridiculous to open such a store in the former residence of so prestigious an artist,” said local art critic Tang Zheming.
The sex shop owner, who had violated no rules regarding prior approval for any modification of historic buildings, refused to close the store despite widespread criticism.
Local officials are trying to take a more effective, innovative approach to preserving homes of the rich and famous.
One model involved the former home of the influential 20th century artist Feng Zikai.The Huangpu District government subsidized a project by Feng’s grandchildren, who were living in the house, to convert the building into a museum to honor their ancestor, who died in 1975.
The result was the Sun and Moon Mansion, which opened to the public in 2010.
However, in 2013, several valuable books containing some of the artist’s works were stolen because the government subsidy didn’t extend to hiring security staff. The museum closed in October 2014 after neighbors complained about the noise from the site.
“Buying these homes and sometimes those next door to avoid conflicts, using government funds, is the only way to ensure effective restoration,” Cai said.
However, if media coverage of the program becomes too wide, existing owners will be asking even more exorbitant prices, she said.
Li Kongsan, from the Shanghai Cultural Relics Management Commission, said the value of former residences depends to some degree on how famous their occupants were.
“The problem, is that there are no criteria for making those judgments,” he said.