What’s In A Home? How Young Locals Are Preserving A Disappearing Culture

How would you feel if the city where you were born and lived for your whole life was judged only for its last 30 years of existence? Would you accept it and joke with everyone else? Or would you furiously defend it? Now take action and make a difference.

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While most of Dongguan’s residents choose to go blind and turn heartless to the place they call home, one group of young people is determined to protect the city’s precious heritage. To them, learning about the old city in a museum, where artifacts are held behind thick glass, is a tragedy. They want to smell the mossy, earthy fragrance, touch the rough, bluish bricks, hear the quaint chirping of birds hopping on tiled roofs overhead and feel the tranquility of a different time.

“The Dongguan where I live isn’t like the one you think. It has old houses, small alleys and is full of human interest. But why all of these are not seen and only the negative things [of the city] are? To me, this is a very inaccurate Dongguan that most talk about,” said Cici Zhang.

“The Dongguan where I live isn’t like the one you think. It has old houses, small alleys and is full of human interest. But why all of these are not seen and only the negative things [of the city] are?”

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Cici Zhang, leader of Dongguan Gateway

Since 2010, Cici and her high school classmates have been organizing a series of salons, workshops, street stalls, forums and walking tours to bring people back to Guancheng. Through their efforts of paying attention to the demolishing of old houses and the fragmenting community, they aim to keep vanishing traditions alive.

Since this past March, they have now focused themselves to work towards a more concrete mission as they try to save the 100-year-old Tan Mansion. To them, this crumbling building symbolizes one of the last few examples of a beautiful Chinese-Western architectural style that once frequently existed in Dongguan.

To save a mansion
Oddly enough, the whole project started with a chance encounter. As early as 2014, Tan Mansion was re-discovered by Yuan Yifeng, a teacher from the Architectural Engineering Department at Dongguan University of Technology (DGUT), while leading six students that were working at the Heritage Trail, a self-guided tour that explores unique sites in Guancheng (formerly written about by HERE! Dongguan in July, 2015).

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Yuan Yifeng (middle in blue T-shirt) and his team

Though masked by decay and slowly collapsing, the stunning Tan Mansion immediately caught Yuan’s attention. Soon after, Yuan and his team redrew the house’s blueprint, hoping that one day the structure could be brought back to its former glory.

Completed not quite 100 years ago in 1919 by Tan Yunxuan, the house has gone through an incredible turbulence during its existence.

In the midst of WWII, the building was used by Japanese troops, where they kept and raped Chinese comfort women. After the establishment of the PRC, the house was lent to the People’s Liberation Army. During the Cultural Revolution, it was used as a steel forge by the Guancheng government, during which time many of its French adornments were destroyed.

15A friend of Yuan happened to be one of the descendants of the original families who had lived in the home and knew all about the situation and problems of the house. Most members of Tan family had long moved out. Only two families remain.

As usual, money for repairs is in short supply. So, Cici, Yuan and the former inhabitants worked together to do whatever they could to save the relic and the project was officially formed.

“If it was fixed, if someone used it, it would be so much better. This is the very simple and kind thought we had in the beginning,” explained Cici.

Since March, Cici, Yuan and a handful of students from DGUT worked with a team of 40 to clear out the empty rooms, prepare various snippets of information and organize walking tours. After speaking with companies and raising 120,000 RMB, they finally opened the house to public by introducing a series of cultural activities.

12small“Before, we often did events in coffee shops. This is the first time we came to an environment like this,” said Li Yunzhe, while participating in the Dongguan Chinese Toastmasters Club, which hosted their weekend speech at Tan Mansion on November 26. “Tan Mansion needs promotion to exchange resources with different organizations. This is very necessary,” she added.

On November 27, British musician Pete Moser was invited to hold a day-long workshop discussing community music at the Mansion. “It supports Cici. She believes that culture can make connections in changing things,” said Pete. “I believe the same, so I came here I do some stuff.” (Read more about Pete’s workshop on page 10)

Lying a foundation
Although immediately meaningful, what Cici and her team have achieved relied on five years’ experience and knowledge. While they were still studying in Guangzhou in 2010, they were already discussing Dongguan’s identity and exploring different ways to create a voice for the city. Around that time, they established their first organization: Dongguan Gateway.

“Studying in university and going out to Hong Kong for the degree served the ultimate goal of coming back to [aid] Dongguan. So, whether coming back in 10 years, in two years or right after graduation, it was all the same. I [knew] I would have to come back.”

From drawing up a map detailing Guancheng’s old street treats, posting cultural articles on Weibo and organizing street stalls to making public suggestions for governmental city plans, the group is colorfully active in the community. The road was bumpy, but when they stumbled, they stood back up every time.

The team having their regular meeting inside the old Mansion

The team having their regular meeting inside the old Mansion

Cici’s love for Guancheng started many years before when her mother carried her by bike through tiny alleys—an intricate vascular network in the town—to buy groceries, clothes and daily necessities. When deciding on her university studies, she had already made up her mind to do something that could help her give back to the community.

She may not have fully understood everything that she learned during those years, but one thing was clear: Dongguan was misunderstood and she wanted to change it.

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One of the community activities in 2014 by Dongguan Gateway

“People always ask me, ‘what’s your motivation to keep going?’ To me, it has never been confused. This is not a romantic relationship to decide on whether to give up or not. This is part of my life; I live in Dongguan,” Cici said proudly.

“For so many years, I was so focused on studying that I didn’t know anything about our traditions and customs. We do want to know about it,” said Li Guishan, one of the founders of Dongguan Gateway that’s still involved with the Tan Mansion project.

A turning point for many was the demolition of the old houses on Zhenhua Road to make way for a new, 4-lane boulevard around 2009.

In November 2014, Yuan Yifeng led a public discussion about city planning in Guancheng

In November 2014, Yuan Yifeng led a public discussion about city planning in Guancheng

“They were just gone. I hadn’t had the chance to know them,” lamented Li. “At the beginning, we just wanted to do something for Dongguan, but later, we found out that we started too late. The things we want to know are disappearing.”

Sometime later, Cici was working at The Chinese University of Hong Kong as an assistant following graduation. Traveling from Hong Kong to Dongguan—and back again—every weekend was not a long-term solution and she finally quit her job in 2015 to permanently settle in Dongguan.

5“Studying in university and going out to Hong Kong for the degree served the ultimate goal of coming back to [aid] Dongguan. So, whether coming back in 10 years, in two years or right after graduation, it was all the same. I [knew] I would have to come back,” said Cici.

As a full-time graphic designer, Li has been designing promotional materials for the team. She first considered it as a hobby where she could meet new people and things, which is very important to any designer, but later it became a priority. “Graphic design in Dongguan is like an ant’s job. It will quickly wear down your willpower. I don’t want to become a stone or a carcass,” she said. “Working with Dongguan Gateway forced me to think outside of work and to think in a different angle.”

Being close to home
During her university years, Cici studied differing ways to create profit from culture. For example, a hundred-year-old village can attract hordes of tourists by building rows of old-style houses, selling popular knick-knacks and presenting performances claiming to portray native culture. The downside of these methods is that they will all slowly destroy anything authentic about the whole endeavor. Cici never wanted to do this.

“Sometimes, I am discouraged, but it doesn’t matter. We are doing what we wished to do, which is letting people know that there’s another Dongguan, other than the Dongguan you think you know.”

The goal of preservation should not only be to protect, but also to develop, enrich and excite the culture. “The government has put a lot of effort into renovating the Rong Geng Former Residence and made it very pretty. But they didn’t nurture it; they didn’t activate its relationship with the community or the Rong descendants. Neither do they hold any events to create a relationship with us. So, you don’t feel like you have anything to do with the house. In order to save it, they [alone] had to save it. We never want to do the same,” admitted Cici.

13smallDongguan Gateway has always professed that everyone could and should be a culture preserver. A person doesn’t have to do something big or make some kind of spectacle to make a difference; it’s simply being active in the minor details of a localized daily life. From shopping in Guancheng and supporting small businesses—while speaking local dialects, discussing local topics and attending local events—to raising your voice when something disagreeable happens in the old town that all contribute to making the city richly livable.

“Every person is a point in history. Culture preservation connects the two dots, so that history logically continues. If the parents don’t know about any culture, there’s no way their children can know,” Cici mentioned, deep in thought.

The never-ending story
“Tan Mansion is only a case, a discovery, a start,” Cici explained. “We hope more and more buildings and traditions will be kept and passed on.”

Three years from now, the group aims to build an exhibition room—to host old objects, pictures and workshops—and a community library and book bar for salon discussions and reading meetings. Up on the second floor, a guest house is planned. “We hope that we can preserve a warm house with activities, instead of only a cold building,” she clarified.

Pete creating music with local youth at Tan Mansion

Pete creating music with local youth at Tan Mansion

If the Tan Mansion project succeeds, it will become Dongguan’s first culture preservation initiated by a non-governmental organization. Moreover, Cici hopes to host a South China culture preservation forum in Dongguan, where several similar organizations will be invited to discuss and share their experiences.

Cici confessed that reaching this point was much harder than she originally anticipated. So far, the most challenging aspect of the entire project has come from working with the government, from who they once naively expected support.

10“Tan Mansion is listed as a historic building, whose repair required certain formal procedures [to proceed],” explained Yuan. “However, right now, Dongguan is applying for the National Famous Historical City [in China] and any decisions related to historic buildings need extra consideration. So, we are moving very slowly.”

Sometimes, the forces against the group threaten its longevity. Without passion, they’d be nothing and against all odds, they continue to carry on.

“It’s so stupid, utterly stupid to do this thing. I always say we are a bunch of dumbasses for doing this. We didn’t think much; this is not something that’s well-organized,” said Cici, tears filling her eyes. “It’s pretty lonely to do a project like this. Sometimes, I am discouraged, but it doesn’t matter. We are doing what we wished to do, which is letting people know that there’s another Dongguan, other than the Dongguan you think you know.”

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