South China Morning Post, Dec 10, 2010



Architects' training often instils them with a strong conservationist streak. Hwang Eu-fung, however, has taken hers to an extreme. Eight years ago, she abandoned her flat, BMW and job with an architectural firm in San Francisco to move into a dilapidated house in the remote Yunnan town of Zhongdian. 

'People here never destroyed or sold their houses because they felt they had been given to them by their ancestors,' Hwang says.

A year earlier, the State Council had declared that the sleepy backwater was the 'lost' Shangri-La, after the mythical Himalayan paradise in James Hilton's novel Lost Horizon, setting in motion a transformation. As local officials raced to boost tourism, a modern city rose around the Old Town. Soon, Tibetan farmers were abandoning their centuries-old ancestral homes - which lacked proper heating, sewerage systems and other modern conveniences - for a better life in the new area.

Although it was left a sort of ghost town, foreigners and Chinese from outside the province soon filled the void, moving in to open souvenir shops, cafes, bars and hotels, in search of a spiritual life or to enjoy the area's pristine scenery. Ironically, it was among this group of outsiders that a movement rose to preserve these old structures.

Since the exodus began, about half of the 60-odd houses in the Old Town - built over the past two centuries during the boom days of the tea horse caravans - have been torn down.

'Tibetans don't see the value of the old houses,' says Ma Ge, a former government worker from Xian, who moved there in 2003 with his wife to renovate an old farmhouse and turn it into a guest house. 'The Tibetans like new things. They think they're more beautiful and fashionable.'

The Old Town today is a mix of old and new. Old structures and faux traditional buildings line its cobblestone streets. Elderly women dressed in traditional Tibetan outfits rest in front of shops, while men play mahjong beside the stone pathway. The voice of Jack Jones bellows from a nearby bar; an English menu outside advertises pizza, hamburgers and French fries. A small monastery, which crowns a hill overlooking the town, can be seen from almost any point in the city, its giant, gold-painted prayer wheel reflecting the afternoon sun.

Sitting in her 200-year-old house eating French toast and drinking Yunnan coffee, Hwang, better known as Ah-Fang, laughs as she describes first meeting her landlady.

'When I told her I wanted to rent the place, she looked at me like, 'Are you sure?''

She rented the old house, she says, because she didn't want to see it torn down and replaced with 'a monster building.' The structure is now the Karma Cafe, a restaurant-cum-cafe which serves Tibetan, Taiwanese and other specialities.

A Taiwan-trained architect with years of work experience in the US, Hwang has become a force in the small movement to preserve the old Tibetan houses. She worked with the local cultural bureau to survey old structures in the town, doing sketches, taking photos and researching their history. She says half the houses have come down since she did her survey, but hopes the remaining ones can be saved.

Uttara Sarkar Crees, a Bengali who grew up in Africa and who worked in eco-tourism in Nepal, is the longest outside resident, having come here in the late 1990s. After working for a local hotel for several years she started an eco-tourism company and opened a gallery-cafe in a 100-year-old structure that was once a prominent trading house.

She says preserving the Old Town is very important. 'How many old towns on the way to Lhasa are still intact?' she asks. 'If we don't save this, the last of the old Tibetan towns will be gone.'

Ma, who also frequently travels in the area, concurs.

'On the road to Lhasa, every little town is more modern than here,' says. 'There's nothing special other than there are Tibetan people there. There's nothing especially Tibetan about these places.'

Uttara reckons her cafe is a good way to help people enjoy these old structures, and also an example for local people to see that they still have function and value.

'I'm not a restaurant person at all,' she says. 'The reason I restored my house was to tell people that preservation can be a sustainable exercise.'

People need comfort, heat, clean water and sanitation, she says, but this can be accomplished with a small investment.

'Why not save your history? If your goal is tourism, who will come if there is nothing unique?' she says.

She cites the example of a Tibetan owner of a former fire station who tore up the front of the old building and turned it into a shop. 'No one wants to rent it now.'

Uttara recently renovated another old structure a few doors away, which served as a guest house during the heyday of horse caravans on the tea route, and hopes to return it to its original function.

Ma and his wife Hazel Pu are another couple of visitors who were so taken by the area that they decided to quit their jobs and settle in Zhongdian. 

As there were no comfortable guest houses in 2005, Pu, a former hotel executive in Fuzhou, decided to use her experience to open the quaint Tibet Home Hotel on the fringes of the Old Town. 

They bought some land and Ma, who has an interest in architecture, renovated an old farmhouse for the hotel. He then used old bricks to rebuild the small structure that now serves as the hotel's dining room and bar - the building that once housed yaks is now a cosy room with plenty of natural sunlight and a fireplace. 

Constantin de Slizewicz, a French journalist who has been roaming this area of Yunnan for 15 years reporting about Tibetan culture, is also keen to restore traditional homes. 'I plan to live here for the rest of my life,' he says. De Slizewicz is building his own eco-friendly home, which he hopes can be a model for families here. 'When people see my house, they can do the same,' he says.

Local officials have drafted rules to protect the integrity of the area, conservationists say, and the previous Communist Party secretary, who was devoted to saving the Old Town, helped install much-needed basic infrastructure. But things slowed after he was re-assigned to Lhasa.

Officials are rotated every few years and because most are more concerned with maintaining positive figures in their reports, the town is paying the price. 

'People are becoming more aware of the value of places like this,' Uttara says. 'But on the other hand, there are a couple of places that are opening that are not conducive to the atmosphere of the Old Town. The rules have to be rethought.' The Old Town has a long history tied to the tea caravans and each of the houses has its own character, she says, but renovations have not always been sensitive to the surroundings. 

Other residents point to how an influential family obtained permission to build a museum but developed a four-storey hotel instead with a karaoke bar next door. 

Uttara concedes it's not easy preserving the old structures. 'Wood is getting more expensive and rammed earth is hard to maintain,' she says. 

Carter Malik, whose Yunnan Mountain Heritage Foundation promotes indigenous handicrafts, urges the use of traditional materials for renovations. 'If you erase this, you erase the intrinsic heritage and cultural value of your architecture,' she says. 'These buildings were made this way for a purpose and that purpose gives them a deeper meaning.' There are practical solutions. Modern plumbing can be installed while retaining the integrity of the structure, Uttara says, and insulation can be fitted in the ceilings and walls to retain warmth in winter. But 'people have to value the old houses to put in the effort'. 

Despite the challenges, the new residents of the Old Town remain optimistic.

'It's not too late to save some of the heritage buildings,' Malik says. 'This is how a town evolves.'