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Soaring tourism, hidden dollars

A Chinese village made famous by a hit film rakes in millions. But residents see little of it.

December 30, 2006|Don Lee | Times Staff Writer

HONGCUN, CHINA — The Ming and Qing dynasties built this town at the foot of China's famed Yellow Mountains. More than 600 years later, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" put it on the map.

Since the hit movie was filmed here, thousands of tourists have traipsed through flagstone streets to resident Wang Qingping's cedar house to see Moon Pond and ancestral halls as impressive as those in Beijing's Forbidden City.

To keep the tourists happy, the local government banned Wang, 66, and other villagers -- many of them tea farmers -- from opening their windows and raising pigs in the town.

"I feel powerless," Wang said.

He and the 1,400 residents of Hongcun are mere props in China's tourism boom. The Asian giant is riding a tourism wave thanks to a runaway economy and a worldwide fascination with the rapidly developing nation. People are flocking to see the Great Wall, the ancient terra cotta warriors in Xian and lesser-known relics, such as Hongcun in south Anhui province.

But the hefty admission fees that tourists fork over often end up in the pockets of politically connected companies. These businesses have secured access to priceless temples, tombs, grottoes and other antiquities from Beijing to the far western borders in Tibet.

Like land grabs that have plagued rural China, these deals are cut quietly between businesspeople and local party bosses. Chinese and Western conservationists say villagers are left out of these negotiations and alienated from their heritage. Some can no longer freely visit temples or use buildings and land that have been in their families for generations.

A few years ago, Zhongdian Qianhushan Ecotourism Development Co. secured rights to build a tourist resort near Jisha Village in southwest China. The resort would be a gateway to sacred Tibetan mountains, which command breathtaking views of alpine lakes and lush meadows.

Zhongdian persuaded dozens of Tibetan families who raised yaks for a living to turn over their traditional lands. The illiterate villagers couldn't read the details of the contract that they had approved with their fingerprints.

They later learned that highways would replace their prime pastures. For that, they would receive an annual payment of $31,000 to $50,000.

"I don't object to tourism companies being involved in development," said He Xuzhong, founder and director of Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center, a nongovernmental organization. "But they should respect cultural relics and take care of locals. Regrettably, many cases are not like that."

The company that runs Hongcun's tourist operations, Beijing Zhongkun Investment Group, raked in more than $600 million last year from operating historical sites and other businesses.

It is controlled by Huang Nubo, a former Communist Party Propaganda Department section chief who, with an estimated net worth of $531 million, was ranked by Forbes magazine as one of China's richest people. The Beijing University graduate is a top administrator at an arm of the Ministry of Construction, one of the agencies responsible for preserving historical sites.

Huang first signed a pact with Hongcun's government in 1997. Last year, the village had more than 530,000 visitors, collecting ticket sales of $2.3 million. Of that amount, two-thirds went to Beijing Zhongkun and most of the rest to county and town governments. The villagers' share: about $90 per person.

On a recent afternoon in Hongcun, tour groups alighted from buses in a dirt parking lot furnished with a toilet and a wooden ticket booth. Signs in English, Chinese and Korean helped them navigate the village, about the size of Walt Disney Co.'s California Adventure theme park.

The visitors jammed onto an arch bridge, snapping pictures of giant lotus leaves swaying below, before passing through Hongcun's high walls.

Once inside, tourists gazed at Hongcun's famous water system, which runs alongside each house so that residents can draw water for cooking and washing. The stream flows into the moon-shaped pond in the center of Hongcun, then out into farmlands.

Wang, a retired engineer, sat in the courtyard of his 220-year-old Qing Dynasty home that he inherited from his father, who inherited it from his own father.

Mythical figures, animals and plants were exquisitely carved on brackets, lattices and arches in the interior of the two-story house. In the central hall, Wang often serves locally grown green tea to visitors before leading them up to see the second-floor veranda that runs around the courtyard. Wang borrowed $25,000 from relatives in recent years to put in new columns and make other repairs.

In 2000, Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," a martial arts love story starring Zhang Ziyi, brought fame to Hongcun when it played to packed theaters around the world, winning four Academy Awards. The movie was filmed here to reflect a traditional Chinese village.

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