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Siheyuan: Old Beijing Style Appeals to Many

Text by Chen Nan

They are comfortable homes, closeted worlds in which families have cared for each other for centuries. One often finds them filled with memories, family treasures or pets. In their courtyards you may still find fruit trees or arbours draped in grape, gourd or wisteria vines.


For centuries, siheyuan or courtyard homes were centres of family life and the lives of the laobaixing or "hundred surnames" in Beijing. These walled, individual family worlds lay enclosed within a wider world of living experience that was itself enclosed behind a protective Beijing city wall. The families there produced some of China's greatest statesmen, restaurateurs, tea house owners, medical practitioners, artists, writers and thinkers.


And today, despite a seemingly endless sprouting of skyscrapers, office complexes, shopping centres and high-rise apartments, and despite the swirl of construction dust, racing dump trucks and mantis-like construction cranes that symbolize the emergence of a new more cosmopolitan Beijing, the siheyuan and their legacy remain.


Their value is measured in the prices people are willing to pay today to connect with the sensibility that the siheyuan represent.


Preserving the Soul of Beijing

A siheyuan, regardless how large, is usually enclosed within four walls. A typical siheyuan has a south-facing main room and wing rooms. Dwellers of the main room commonly had a higher social status than those living in the wing rooms, which may have house kitchens, guest or servants quarters, studies or personal libraries. This was the style of a traditional Beijing residence, which dates back by more than 800 years to a time when Beijing first became a capital city; their construction typified the capital's architectural style.

Siheyuan occupy a rich and historical place in Beijing's culture. They represent a kind of architecture, but also serve as a window on the life of old Beijing, a kind of "encyclopaedia" of the history and culture of Beijing.

A systematic demolition of old urban buildings began with China's rapid economic development in the 1990s. This was accompanied by the large-scale disappearance of siheyuan as the municipal government implemented a housing renovation policy that allowed developers to replace old and derelict dwellings with high-rise buildings.

To protect these historic buildings, a long-sought law to protect Beijing's historical and cultural heritage was passed by the city's legislature in 2005. The Beijing Regulation for Historical and Cultural City Protection, which took effect on May 1, 2005, stipulates that the city will protect its more than 3,500 listed heritage sites but also its unlisted sites deemed to be of significant historical or cultural value.

To encourage greater participation in the conservation and repair of Beijing's old districts and cultural and historical conservation areas, the municipality on May 2004 launched its "Circular Encouraging Groups and Individuals to Buy Siheyuan in Beijing's Old Districts and Cultural and Historical Conservation Areas." For the first time, foreigners were allowed to buy siheyuan. Under this plan, buyers actually own the real estate and have a legal right to sell, lease, mortgage, present or transfer it. A sale price is based on negotiations between buyers and sellers. The new policy has helped make many people's dreams come true, including some non-Beijingers, returned overseas Chinese, and some foreigners.

Chinese-style siheyuan emerge in the market

While supporting the development of western-styled villas and apartment buildings for more than a decade, real estate developers have also focused attention on building increasingly popular traditional-styled Chinese homes on the model of the siheyuan, sometimes with phenomenal results.

Driven by favourable regulations and a revived passion for the historical, the market for siheyuan homes flourished to the point that it is now considered fully developed. With a ban on future villa development in the city, the values of existing siheyuan, old or new, are expected to rise.

Existing ancient siheyuan are mainly located in Dongcheng, Xicheng, Chongwen and Xuanwu districts, but the best-preserved are those in Dongcheng and Xicheng.

Despite being a "new" target for sales in the market, most of the traditional Chinese-style developments have experienced good sales results. Developers in Beijing say that sales of siheyuan have increased, since the new policy came into effect, and that more than 60 percent of buyers are foreigners or non-Beijingers.

The most highly valued siheyuan are found in or around Shichahai in Dongcheng District and are selling very well. The chief of the Wandecheng Real Estate Agency said, "They can be sold for more than 10,000 yuan (US$1,210) per square metre." One 2,000-square-metre siheyuan in Shichahai sold for an incredible 40 million yuan (US$4.9 million). They are generally priced at 7,000 yuan to 10,000 yuan (US$871.90-$1,245.50) per square metre.

There are approximately 7,000 to 9,000 siheyuan for sale. According to a real estate agency that began dealing in siheyuan transactions in 2005, some people bought the siheyuan out of personal interest, but most buyers were non-Beijingers seeking a solid investment. Because of the siheyuan's high cultural value, the profits range from 100 percent to 200 percent per sale or more.

What's more, the siheyuan trend has inspired a market for buildings in the siheyuan style.

Opening on September 10, 2005, the Cathay View villas, developed by Tsinghua Unis Real Estate Development, are Chinese-style high-end villas located in northern Beijing. The development includes 350 villas designed like siheyuan.

Cathay View is not unique. Several traditional Chinese villa projects have emerged in recent years in China's vast real estate market.

Cathay View's villas sell for about US$2,600 per square metre. A 300-square-metre villa will generally cost US$800,000. That is more expensive than the villas in developments neighbouring Cathay View.

Also in the market is the Beijing Lucky Hope Real Estate Company, which has developed its I-House project that has 300 siheyuan-like villas in Beijing's Shunyi District. Prices range from 6,900 yuan (US$833.33) per square metre for houses connected to each other, to 10,000 yuan (US$1,207.73) per square metre for detached, single-family units.


Buyers Crave Traditional Siheyuan

Siheyuan stir the souls of Beijing residents because they spark the recall, perhaps, of childhood happiness or pleasing images lodged in their memories. From a foreign visitors' point of view, siheyuan, with their street side markets populated with fruit sellers, bicycle repairers, tofu salesmen and more all scattered along narrow hutong lanes, have a bewitching charm that suggests old Beijing and a life away from the modern hub-bub. Here people have a chance to interact with the local people and to observe their daily lives. Siheyuan, in effect, bring people together.

Laurence Barron, president of Airbus China, said of his siheyuan residence: "While many westerners would not dream of living in other than western-style housing, I like to try something different. I was lucky enough to find a courtyard situated in a park. Every day, I awake to the chirping of birds outside my window, and my bedroom is close to the river which gives me a great sense of relaxation." His home has helped this western-suited, non-Chinese-language speaking westerner build on his strong affinity for China.

A French woman who just moved into her newly bought siheyuan said she thinks that no buildings can compare in stature with the dignity and mystery of the siheyuan.

Whether foreigners captivated by the spatial harmony of siheyuan or locals who yearn for a return to the good old days, they appreciate a dwelling that is part of a holistic melody, with a rhythm and structure that has unfortunately been lost with much of contemporary architecture.