Long the clichéd domiciles of the old China hand, Beijing’s siheyuan homes, quadrangle-shaped properties built off the narrow hutong laneways of the capital, are getting a makeover. Adalbert Kapp, a German architect-turned-developer involved in remodeling siheyuans, knows this transformation can be lucrative. He sold his first siheyuan, a 650-square-meter property in Xicheng, the heart of old Beijing, to a foreign buyer in 2007 for US$8.8 million.
The price tag may be a bit expensive for the average expat but there are plenty of wealthy foreign and Chinese executive types willing to pay, Kapp says. He purchased the Xicheng property in 2006 through his firm, Dechuang Real Estate, and has since bought three more siheyuans near the Forbidden City in Dongcheng district, which are currently being remodeled. He continues to scour Beijing for new opportunities.
"Siheyuan homes are not easy to find and are often in bad shape. We are sometimes literally buying ruins and totally reinventing them."
Kapp justifies his asking price because, rather than restore the siheyuan, he completely remodels the interior, essentially wrapping the traditional exterior around a luxurious modern interior. He calls his siheyuan a "new interpretation" of hutong living.
At the Xicheng home, bathroom and kitchen fixtures as well as air conditioning and heating systems were all bought off the shelf in Germany. When he found local gypsum boards weren’t up to his exacting standards, he shipped them from Frankfurt. German craftsmen flew in when locals weren’t accustomed to the imported materials. The Xicheng building has its own natural gas heating and a spacious bathroom.
Another selling point for his future properties, he adds, will be a basement – not a traditional feature of the siheyuan. Kapp’s workers excavate and build beneath the siheyuan, which more than doubles the floor space of his homes from 400 to 1,000sqm.
Kapp claims he has a waiting list of mostly overseas Chinese clients seeking to buy his remodeled siheyuans. Such old properties are hard to purchase given frequent disputes over ownership. Kapp has also encountered "huge problems" with neighbors who complain about noise in order, he claims, to extract payments.
"They want to move but see foreigners and smell money, and try to make some by blocking work," he said.
Since gas and sewage infrastructure is not well-developed in hutongs, Kapp has also endured long negotiations with local authorities and neighbors to get pipes laid to neighboring streets. "It’s very difficult, but it is possible."
Siheyuan homes are not easy to buy, but rentals are easy enough to come by for those willing to put up with the original fittings. Government-funded renovation has made life a little more comfortable in protected hutongs. Long-term Beijing resident and English teacher Stuart Smith draws the good-natured curiosity of locals in the northern end of a siheyuan he occupies in Dongcheng district.
The restoration has made the buildings more livable. "Last year everyone in my siheyuan had to go down the street to use the public toilets," Smith said. "Now there are toilets in the houses, and much better plumbing."
Other renters of siheyuans have had less-than-positive reviews of hutong life, especially in winter. Several hundred years old, the brick-walled old buildings can get very cold. One former siheyuan dweller, who asked to remain nameless, said his US$4,400-per-month one-bedroom siheyuan near the Forbidden City left him hospitalized with pneumonia.
"It was like camping," said the American legal professional. "I was promised heating but it didn’t work. It was freezing and because the toilet often didn’t work I ended up having to share a bathroom with my neighbors, who were also foreigners conned into living a hutong dream."
Fast-buck Beijing landlords have made a killing renting siheyuan-style homes to tourists for up to US$5,800 a month. But Kapp dismisses many of these large new compounds of siheyuan-style Chinese housing, such as the 300-house Cathay View in the villa district of Shunyi, as unauthentic mass developments. The developers, he claims, are roping standard apartments in a local style. In Kapp’s view, siheyuans belong in their natural environment.
Local reworking of the siheyuan model has also been crude because local architects prefer to work on big, greenfield projects rather than on interesting hutong projects. "They’re not taught to create, just to fit requirements necessary for regulations rather than seeing what might be possible," Kapp said.
Finding appropriately skilled architects and craftsmen is the biggest challenge to his company’s expansion plans.
A lost legacy
These projects have also scored low marks with conservationists. The Qianmen area has been remodeled in an Olde World style by Soho, which reconstructed buildings using aluminum and concrete – alien to traditional hutong-style Beijing planning, explained Matthew Hu of the Beijing Cultural Heritage Preservation Center.
Hu believes commercial interests have been put above conservation in most of the urban renewal projects in traditional hutong areas, leaving precious little of the city’s original siheyuan homes intact. An estimated 40% of Beijing’s original siheyuan homes have disappeared since 1990, largely replaced by concrete office and apartment blocks.
District governments typically sell development rights to real estate companies, with residents offered suburban apartments for relocation.
"Developers were invited in on a promise to clean up an area, but that rarely involved preserving the original structures," Hu said.
But Kapp’s siheyuan sales seem to indicate that the situation of Beijing’s traditional homes may be improving. He adds that he has been approached by officials scouting for developers who would refurbish old buildings in a sensitive but commercially viable way.
"Urban planners now realize they have demolished a huge part of their history and should do something to fit the city, and the most special model in Beijing is the siheyuan," Kapp said.