Q&A with Chris Barclay on The Pear Orchard Temple
Reprinted from the China Building Restoration blog
Q: What were your immediate key intentions for restoring the Pear Orchard?
The first was to restore it with integrity; not just some ad-hoc fixes or cosmetic touch-ups, but a complete job that would keep the temple intact for the next 100 years. The second would be to balance the secular and the sacred; to promote tourism, run a vegetarian restaurant and all while encouraging continued attention to religious traditions in the temple. The third was to make it self-sufficient; not necessarily to make a lot of money, but to pay for the staff working there, allow us to donate to village activities and be able to re-invest in the people and place.
Q: What (if any) is your longer-term goal behind this restoration project?
I’d like to see the temple become a regular venue for traditional arts and music as well as an educational center for Shaxi heritage.
Q: Please summarise your view what sustainable tourism means and how best to implement this in a project like the Pear Orchard. From your presentation I understand that you have a very focused approach to sustainable tourism and I’d like to add that in as I think it’s important to have these wider-reaching ideas when approaching restoration projects.
It’s important that sustainable tourism give a lot of participation and ownership to local people and not require major infrastructure projects to expand. Shaxi’s small roads are perfect for bikes and the existing trails suit horses and hikers. None of these things has much of a footprint (horses consume hay from rice harvests) and we don’t need bigger roads or huge hotels to improve the long-term growth of tourism in Shaxi. Therefore, the Visitor’s Centre in the temple will encourage guests to participate in village tours, horse trekking, hiking and biking, whereby there are a lot of opportunities for interaction with local people who can also offer services in their area, without the need for any kind of “Official” tourism district.
Q: Please give a summary / list of the order of how you approached discussions and decision making at the beginning of the project. Did you simply ask around the village and then hold gatherings with the elders? At which stage of discussions did you involve local government? When did you find the local tradesmen?
When my wife and I first came to the temple in February 2011, we had a look around and I immediately felt sad that this place was kind of abandoned and run down, as it would have made a great place for a teahouse. I explored the idea of some kind of food & beverage concept in the temple throughout 2011 and began to realize that it really wouldn’t work without some serious rebuilding. When my daughter was born in mid-Jaunary 2012, my wife said if we really wanted to do something in Shaxi, we should start with rebuilding the temple. I had met with the government informally a couple of times in 2011 to explore possibilities, get introductions to village elders and by January 2012, I was ready to commit to a full rebuild. The approvals came quickly, with the government supporting our idea to the village and helping secure a win-win agreement. There were a few lunches and dinners with the elders and the County Heritage Bureau, by my March 2012, we were ready to begin work. The construction team all came from Duan Village, and were introduced to me by the owner of a guesthouse in that village.
Q: At what stage did you contact UNESCO? To what extent were/are they involved?
At the beginning of the project, I began looking at UNESCO Southeast Asia website, to find out how other people were approaching multi-use heritage property restoration. They have Heritage Awards every year, so I looked at the key requirements, guidelines and questionnaires they use in the application process. I didn’t think our project was worthy of submitting but as it grew in scope and investment, I began to consider submitting and did so in 2014. We didn’t win, but the head of UNESCO’s Bangkok Office personally wrote me and asked me to resubmit for 2015, which I did, and again, didn’t win. I attribute this to competing against much better funded projects that deal with more culturally significant sites. As far as I know, nobody from UNESCO came to see our work, but they may yet, as they are very interested in how the temple will function in the years following restoration. That is, will we have kept our promise to improve tourism development in our village and beyond without having any negative impact on religious practices and other traditions at the temple.
Q: Please summarise your responsibilities or role towards the Pear Orchard. What was the final agreement between you and the other parties involved as to your role in this project?
Our covenant with the Diantou Village Government and Elders Council is that I will take custodianship of the temple for 30 years while refraining from any activities that would damage the space or disrespect the local people who use it. I hired some local women from the village and have them look after day-to-day functions as well as cooking for guests.
Q: Before starting, did you have to catalogue anything / everything? If so, who made that demand and where did that info go?
My Master Carpenter, Mr. Yang and I took lots of pictures of everything before, during and after construction, especially artwork on plaster that had to be removed and repainted. It was in our interests to do so in order to show the government the extent and quality of our work, as well as for me to monitor progress when not in Shaxi and share with those interested on our website.
Q: Please describe in one or two sentences what the Pear Orchard site was like before you started renovations.
It was a functioning temple with most non-worship spaces used for furniture and kitchen storage related to temple festivals. The roofs leaked, a lot of woodwork was rotten or missing, the trees were dying. There were a lot of ugly ad-hoc fixes like cementing and painting over broken things. Older people from the village would come and play Mahjong there and even dry their vegetables in the courtyards. One thing I noticed was that the temple wasn’t open every day and the main gate was often locked. If people wanted to play cards or worship, they would have to get the man with the key. This is how most temples in Shaxi are today.
Q: Please give a list of all the major works that had to be done. Plumbing, heating, wiring, shoring, foundations, structural work, carpentry, etc.
We completed major work on all the areas you’ve mentioned here, plus lighting, fire detection and suppression, interior decoration for the restaurant, new stairs to the upper shrine, two new retaining walls, a reinforced concrete terrace with railings, parking and new public toilets. We found a corner stone inscribed with poetry, an ancient carved stone footing that we excavated when rebuilding a wall and iron spikes that were used as nails. We also found the buried foot of one of the old lion dog temple guardians that were likely smashed during the Cultural Revolution.
Q: Please give 3-4 examples of areas where you did restoration / repurposing work. Can you give specific examples of a building method, or a traditional material, or style that was implemented as part of the restoration works. For example repurposing timber for rafters, floors and beams. Or perhaps the restoration work came in more to play for decorative items like windows and roof tiles.
The women on site hand cleaned every single roof tile we had removed before putting them back. We bought mud brick from a farmer’s collapsed bar to supplement the mud brick we had to tear down, as this building material is not locally produced any more. We used broken window lattice to make tables for the restaurant and rafters to make the reception desk and service station. All the wall rendering was done on site, using a mix of lime, clay and pigment. The wood floor joint compound was home made on site from ash and tree resin. We did not paint any of the new wood, but used teng oil and ink to match the color of the existing wood.
Q: Were there any unexpected problems or issues that arose during the construction process? Was there any area where you had to improvise / compromise etc. on something unexpected? Was there anything that was out of your control?
One issue was how much dirt and cement had to be excavated to find original foundations and then adjusting pillar footings and floor walkways, which required removing and refitting every piece of stone. We often had to reset floors 20cm below existing levels, which meant removing tons of earth. The biggest issue we had was we had piled all of the rotten wood at the side of the temple, which was to be a garden and parking area. The elderly ladies of the village wanted to keep this wood for kitchen fuel, so without warning, they built a reinforced concrete block storage right up against the temple wall in the middle of this area. We couldn’t just knock it down and no one in the village would take responsibility for it. We suggested moving it to another part of the village, but no one wanted to get involved in this. It took many months of going around and around the problem, with every local government official pushing responsibility for resolving this to another department. So we finally agreed to compensate the ladies for their illegal building as well as pay to build a new one, where they could also keep much of the benches and tables for village festivals. This is China.
Q: Could you give one or two examples of where you had to make a judgment call and the reasoning behind your decisions? For example, the restaurant, because it emphasises how functions have to adapt with the times in order to keep these spaces relevant.
It was not a problem for the government to allow us a restaurant in the temple, but we did not have a kitchen. There are two existing kitchens, both for village festivals and not suitable for modern, small scale cooking. When we wanted to build a kitchen for the restaurant, we looked at a reading room that was also being used for storage. This reading room did not house any shrines or articles of any importance to the village or temple, but was at some point important for ceremonies, as the room used for banner calligraphy and keeping religious texts. Since this room was no longer in use and the elders had been using other space more conveniently located in the lower courtyard for making banners, we chose to create the new kitchen here. Had we tried to recreate the room for its original intended purpose, it would have rarely if ever been used.
We also chose lighting in the main hall where none existed before. For the main lights we chose traditional Chinese temple lanterns and additionally I designed a pair of nesting lights that resemble temple incense coils. We asked the elders about both of these and as with most of our suggestions they were enthusiastic, since it was such an improvement over what was there before (in this case, there was not even electricity in the building). The incense coil lights are unique and match the actual incense coils hanging in the hall, so I took license to put them in there, believing that if anyone objected to them, I could easily replace them with another set of traditional lanterns.
Q: What do you see happening to the Pear Orchard over the next 5 years?
It’s hard to say anything with certainty about foreign managed heritage buildings in China. Government policies often suddenly change without notice. Some fires in important buildings in China has made the government unwilling to allow situations like ours at the Pear Orchard Temple, but for now, we have been grandfathered in. We want to expand service for tour and student groups, offer shared workspace to tour guides and artists, hold photography exhibits and music festivals. We will need someone like a curator to make some of these things happen. We intend to offer horse trekking up to the Sihbaoshan Buddhist grottoes and promote family owned businesses in the villages.
Q: What changes to you see in store for the general Shaxi area in the next 5 years?
It looks to be going the way of Dali and Lijiang old towns, but because of its small size, I don’t think Shaxi will ever become this mass tourism center like these places. For sure, there will be a lot more growth here in Chinese tourism and a challenge for the government to create meaningful zoning to prevent music bars, prostitution, discos and nightclub growth in the old town, as has happened everywhere else there are a lot of Chinese tourists. I believe will stay quieter and better managed, as the government has learned from the mistakes of Dali and Lijiang.
Q: Do you have any insights into the route tourism in China will take over the next 5 years?
I do see more and more Chinese who can appreciate quiet and heritage preservation. This is a huge change from even a few years ago, and one that I think will continue. I also see local governments more willing to invest in authentic preservation to encourage tourism In the past, they would just knock down an old building and build a copy of it. More and more, Chinese are supplanting wealthier foreign visitors, but also bring with them bad habits, such as wanting to drive their cars everywhere, zero concept of waste management, being super loud and in general, having no situational awareness. Hopefully our model of development will attract people who can appreciate it and promote to other like-minded people.