Occupational Hazards

Red tape and reluctant tenants have closed some of China’s best historical buildings to the public

Norman Lee, a concert pianist from Hong Kong, once spent 25 years trying to move house. In 1991, on hearing that the province of Guangdong was inviting overseas Chinese to return and invest in the mainland by offering them the possibility of gaining back their ancestor’ real estate properties, Lee’s father arrived in the port city of Shantou to reclaim Xiang Yuan, the European villa that Lee’s grandfather built in 1928 after making his fortune in business.

There was just one problem: An enterprise called the Chousha Firm had been using the house for the last 43 years—first to run an embroidery factory, then to accommodate the Shantou Disciplinary Committee, then still later, to lease to businesses ranging from a preschool to a cafe. And the law wasn’t exactly clear on how to get them out.

In the years that followed, the Lee family’s struggle to evict the company would involve attempted lawsuits, and appeals to various provincial and municipal bureaus. Finally, the family paid 1.2 million RMB out of their own pocket to the company and 200,000 to the then-tenants, which they accepted as compensation for moving out in 2015. It was not until then that Lee, who had only ever seen pictures of the family home, had his first glimpse of Xiang Yuan.

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Occupational Hazards is a story from our issue, “Cloud Country.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.


author Hatty Liu

Hatty Liu is the managing editor of The World of Chinese, and an award-winning communications researcher. Born in China, and raised in China, Canada, and the US, she leverages her cross-cultural identity to create more empathetic knowledge across national boundaries.

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