Chinese House Finds Home In U.S.

image AP

Two hundred years ago, in a remote village in the Huizhou region of China, a wealthy family built a beautiful house. They gave it a name, Yin Yu Tang.

It was about to meet the same fate as so many other historic wooden houses in China – torn down, the wood sold for scrap – when, completely by chance, the perfect person to save it simply walked up to the front door.

Nancy Berliner, curator of Chinese art and culture at the Peabody-Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., happened upon Yin Yu Tang the very day that family members had gathered and decided to sell the house.

"An elderly man came up to me and he said, 'You like this house?'" Berliner recalls. "I said, 'It's beautiful,' and he said, 'Do you want to buy it?'"

Little did he know that day in 1996, that the Peabody-Essex Museum has an entire collection of old houses, and one of the world's great collections of Asian art and design. There was probably no better place, anywhere, for the house to end up.

The museum was just about to build a $125 million new building. There was just enough time to organize the elaborate cultural exchange necessary to acquire the house, and to redesign the new museum so Yin Yu Tang would be front and center.

Dan Monroe, director of the Peabody-Essex Museum, explains, "We did give it a place of honor and also a place of where it has its own standing and integrity. We considered things like feng shui. Even the placement...it's actually sited here in exactly the same manner it was sited in the village."

But first, the grand old house had to be moved.

Huang She Chi grew up in the house, which had been in his family for seven generations. Before Yin Yu Tang was dismantled, he consulted his ancestors to tell them what was about to happen. Then, each roof tile, each wall panel, each beam was catalogued, crated, and loaded into containers.

Yin Yu Tang embarked on a 13,000-mile journey. In January 1998, it arrived at a warehouse in Melrose, Mass. There, all of the pieces were unpacked and laid out like millions of giant Legos to be reassembled in Salem. The Chinese carpenters who took it apart were flown over to help put it back together.

Most people associate Salem with the colonial-era witch trials, but the legacy of Salem's 18th and early 19th century sea captains - merchants who went to sea to make their fortunes - is the bigger story. In 1799, just about the same time the Chinese house was built, some of these Salem adventurers opened what has evolved into the Peabody-Essex Museum.

Walk through the museum or any of the historic houses it owns and the link between Salem and the world of the Chinese house is obvious: especially in the Crowninshield Bentley House. Like the Chinese house, one family owned it for nearly 200 years.

The Crowninshield family of Salem and the Huang family of the Huizhou region in China actually lived remarkably similar lives.

"The men all lived outside the house," Berliner explains. "It was really only women and children who lived in the house. The men were merchants and had their businesses elsewhere. They would come back to get married, and then once every three years they might come back for about six months."

The name Yin Yu Tang can be interpreted to mean, hope that the house would shelter the family for many generations.

The house will not be restored to look as it might have 200 years ago. It will be left as a testament to members of one Chinese family living the history of their country. It's battered, but still beautiful.

"Everything is fit in with fine joinery to hold it down, and there are very, very few nails in the house," says Berliner. "Because the house was really a kit of parts, all the components could be built off-site and then they were brought to the site and just put right together and everybody knew what piece was what. Completely prefab."

But the secret of how it was done – and more importantly, how to do it again – involves restoration carpenter Zhou Zhiu Ming and his team. A house speaks its own language, and the Americans reassembling Yin Yu Tang needed interpreters.

So every few months, Zhou Zhiu Ming and his men leave their homes in China and move here to work alongside their American counterparts, sometimes for as long as six months at a stretch. In four years of working together, the two teams have devised their own way of communicating.

The process of joining the old house and the new museum began in earnest last summer. Passersby have noticed a strange fusion taking place – the weary beams of the Chinese home somehow bringing life to the hardhat zone of a 21st century construction site.

The building of one and the rebuilding of the other won't be complete until this coming June, but it already looks as though Yin Yu Tang and Salem are a good fit.
  • Austin Burke

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