It’s been a slow news week in Beijing, as evidenced by the fact that all of yesterday’s papers carried front page stories about “Beijing’s Most Outrageous Illegal Structure,” a rooftop apartment that has been transformed into a “mountain villa,” complete with rocks (styrofoam perhaps), trees, a karaoke club. Some reports even mentioned a swimming pool, but that may just be a wild rumor.
Mind you, the fact that an illegal structure can be designated as the “most outrageous” is a tip-off that illegal structures must be common, which is of course, the case. Putting up illegal structures, be they extra floors on a building, turning balconies into rooms, or simply building a structure on an open piece of land is a national sport in China.
What makes a structure ‘illegal’ is that permission to build them was never obtained from the local authorities. It’s easier to put them up, then take then local inspectors out for a banquet or deliver a fat ‘hong bao’ (an envelope of cash) at Spring Festival.
Here’s what the The New York Times has to say about it:
In a city brimming with look-at-me architecture, the sprawling addition that Zhang Biqing, a health care magnate, built atop his 26th-floor apartment is a showstopper.
Constructed with ersatz boulders, crisscrossed by trellises and walkways and dotted with the occasional shrub, the two-story aerie resembles the idealized mountains depicted in classical Chinese paintings — except the requisite lonely monk of yore has been replaced by a flashy karaoke parlor.
I first spotted news of this particular monstrosity on the internet on Monday. By Tuesday morning, however, the story had gone viral, being picked up by news sites all across the globe. On Tuesday afternoon, I stopped at a street side newspaper kiosk to purchase a phone card and saw that it was on the front page of ALL major Beijing newspapers.
I picked up one of the papers to get a better look at the photo and read a bit more, and suddenly realized that I recognized the building — it is 2 blocks from where I am staying this month, and 3 blocks from where I lived for the past 8 years. How I’d never spotted it before is still beyond comprehension.
When I realized that the place was close by (and visible from my colleague’s hotel room on the 15th floor), I decided that it was time to go see it for myself. I grabbed my camera, rounded up a couple of friends and headed off to see this thing with my own eyes.
Sure enough, there it was.
There was a young man standing on the overpass at Zizhuqiao taking pictures as well, so we struck up a conversation with him. It was nice to know that he thought it was nuts too. For the next couple of hours he joined us as we traipsed up and down Xizhimen Wai DaJie, near the Purple Bamboo Park, trying to get the best angles for shooting pictures.
There were lots of others along the road staring up at the building as well. “What do you think of that?” I asked a toothless man leaning against his bicycle. “Bu hao, bu hao,” he replied. Not good, not good.
We talked to another man who lives in the next door building who thought it was good for the environment. “It’s good to be green,” he said.
Initial reports said the owner (Mr. Zhang) was a professor (obviously NOT of civil engineering). Later reports have identified him as a Traditional Chinese Medicine Mogul (read: quack!)
Apparently he has spent the last six years building it, and for some reason no government department in the city has been able to stop him (they were probably too busy attending karaoke parties in the villa). That, of course, has changed with the explosion of the story, and local officials are scrambling to appear tough and concerned. They have ordered the owner to dismantle it within 15 days or they will do it for him. They’ve also announced an investigation into his company (message: embarrass the city and you will pay a price).
As for Mr. Zhang, now that he has become an objective of global ridicule, he’s taken on a more conciliatory tone:
Mr. Zhang asserted that the structure was safe in a brief interview on Tuesday evening, but conceded that it might have been a folly after all.
“Now I realize it was a huge mistake,” he said, adding that he would dismantle the addition within a week.
And I’ll be watching from my colleague’s hotel room.