Chinese Nail Houses

Isolated in the middle of staggering construction zones wait rickety, old houses. Their owners are defiant against the country’s expansion. They say their property is being taken unfairly, so they fight. Who said life is fair, anyway?

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In 2010, the Yangji Village in Guangzhou was flagged for redevelopment. From then until 2013, a battle was waged between construction companies and local residents. Although 98 percent of the villagers moved out in the first two months, the final two percent fought for three years, refusing to leave their homes. Over the course of the process, they negotiated, battled and defended themselves in the court. They were yelled at, isolated and attacked. Some even committed suicide, but none of them could change their fate.

Nail houses—owners that that refuse to let their buildings be demolished in the middle of construction zones—are a growing concern in China as the country quickly develops. Many fear that their homes will be taken for nothing, so they fight back.

Located in Guangzhou’s CBD, between Zhujiang New Town and Wuyang New Town, the 900-year-old village grew attractive in the 1990s for its advantageous location and more affordable prices. Soon, the neighborhood attracted migrants by the tens of thousands, all living on 110,000 sq. meters of land. Rather quickly, the congestion bred widespread crime and prostitution.

By July of 2010, the first of the 1,496 houses was demolished. Yangji was now listed as one of the city’s 50-plus villages pending eviction and transformation.

A new community with more than a dozen 36-storey buildings, a garden, entertainment and fitness facilities, shops and office buildings was planned to accommodate a wave of new inhabitants. However, 18 families argued that the terms of demolition and resettlement were unfair and weren’t approved by all of the villagers. Some families would not receive any compensation for additional parts of the house they built privately and other investments they made.

In September 2011, the Guangzhou People’s Court of Yuexiu District forced the Yao Runzhen family to move. In retaliation, Yao prepared gasoline and white banners, confronting the police for an entire morning before finally giving in to their demands. Two months later, a demolition team armed with a court order and assisted by a special police force raided a further 23 nail houses. One father and his daughter, Lin Guoying and Yao Huixian, respectively, poured gasoline from the second floor. They were quickly arrested and later detained for 15 days.

The final 10 nail houses that were still standing, scattered around the vast crop of now vacant land, celebrated 2012’s Chinese New Year with a simple reunion meal.

That March of 2012, a second round of demolition kicked off. Two months later, the situation was growing worse. Li Jie’e, owner of a three and a half-storey house, jumped from her building and died. She was hopeless that she would be able to secure enough money for her property that would allow her family to find a new home in the area. In her suicide letter, she wrote to her friend Yao Mu’e: “Change your personality, don’t be opinionated. Learn to trust people; trust the good people.”

By 2013, the general public began to lose their patience and sympathy for the nail house owners and confronted, quarreled and threatened them. In turn, the former villagers were furious. When can they move to the new apartments, they wondered? When can their children cease traveling across half of Guangzhou to attend school? Will the elderly ever go back home in their remaining years?

On January 30 of the same year, a two-meter-deep by four-meter-wide moat was dug around the last six nail houses, allegedly by a villager surnamed Yao, in an apparent attempt to force the final stragglers out.

By July 2013, the remaining two families had packed their things and left the homes that had eventually become forts through modification. They had held their ground for the last three years, combatting fierce attacks from property owners, real estate developers and the government, but in the end, they lost.

In an attempt to appease the formerly ejected families, a massive banquet with 1,500 red tables was held in the brand new garden to celebrate the villagers’ return in October 2016. At least 12,000 people from Yangji and neighboring villages were fed. The residents received 4,032 apartments in total, with floor spaces ranging from 32 to 118 sq. meters. On average, every family was given four apartments worth a considerable sum.

Why did they fight? These were their homes and they feared being tossed out, as mere casualties of modernization. Had they gone quietly, would things have gone differently? Hard to say, but let’s hope every story ends this way.