House in the middle of the road

November 26, 2012

Wenling, China

By Aly Song

“Right now, buying a house like this would cost me more than 2 million yuan, but the government only offered me 260,015 to move, where could I go?” 67-year-old Luo Baogen said while smoking a cigarette in front of his partially demolished “nail house”, standing alone in the middle of a road in Wenling city, China’s eastern Zhejiang province. “Nail house” refers to the last houses in an area owned by people who refuse to move to make room for new developments.

GALLERY: A HOUSE IN THE ROAD

About 500 kilometers (310 miles) from Shanghai, this house quickly became an Internet hot topic after local news reports bearing dramatic photographs went public last week.

Considering a follow-up story and to have some more pictures of our own, I traveled there with a Reuters TV colleague on Saturday.

GALLERY: A HOUSE IN THE ROAD

It was difficult to believe that such a small city of Wenling was also undergoing great changes like Shanghai. On my train ride, I could see big and small construction sites on both sides of the railway. As soon as I stepped off the train, I could hear many noises of heavy machinery, constant reminders of the fast GDP development in this country.

I knew most of the “nail house” problems were as consequences of economic developments. This one was no exception.

After a brief interview, we learned that Luo Baogen and his wife were farmers who used to live in a quiet village too small to be found on Google map, with a few houses and some crop fields around the area. But just a few years ago, the high-speed railway ran through this village, and the local government decided to take advantage to turn this place into an economic development zone. Negotiation and demolition kicked off. Fast forward to today, and Luo and his wife are the last family refusing to move.

Luo told us he was distressed as feedback from the government changed all the time. He didn’t know what else he could do, so he just waits day after day by his house, puffing on cigarettes.

While we were interviewing Luo, dozens of other villagers came to us to complain about the local government’s behavior, but all of them asked to be off-the-record. In the meantime, an unidentified man kept using a mobile phone to take pictures of us to keep us on record.

I have covered several nail house stories in my photojournalism career, and sometimes, I can feel the same powerlessness and tininess as my interviewees, being in the way of the development of a fast-growing nation.

I sincerely hope that there will be a happy ending for this couple. I believe honest people like them, and many other citizens, deserve better, as they have already given so much to society.

4 comments

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This story proves that local governments do follow the law and that widespread forced demolitions are a myth. Forced acquisition of properties at a value by government valuers are widely practised in the G8 nations and accepted as the norm. You cannot have an individual exploiting the situation and demanding outrageous compensation.

Posted by WJL | Report as abusive

To go one step further in the understanding of the naming “nail house”: this naming comes from an ancient Arabic tale, called “Mustafa and his nail”. It tells the story of a small boy, who just lost his parents and is obliged to let his house for almost nothing to his neighbour. he only asks one thing to the greedy neighbour before living: remaining the owner of a single nail in one of the wall. The neighbour accepts. Then one day Mustafa knocks on the door and asks about using the nail to hang a frog. The neighbour then is forced to accept. One other day he comes back and asks the neighbour to use his nail to hang another stuff, and so on each and every day. I let you imagine the end of the tale…Mustafa is now enjoying quiet days in his returned house.
Just for all of you that will enjoy the subtleness of the naming “nail house”.

Posted by greenrabbit | Report as abusive

This could not happen in the US under eminent domain law. The only time I have ever heard of private owners being able to hold out against redevelopment pressure was when the developer was private and did not have the power to use eminent domain law. A recent Supreme Court decision may make even that “last stand” impossible here too.

It is obviously not China under Mao any more.

That was a very large house and very well built, from the looks of it.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive