the trouble with my cottage – a common story

Cottage Trouble

It was a romantic idea – to buy a country house outside Beijing, to escape the hustle and bustle of city life. Back in 1999, my friend Carrie, BBC’s then bureau chief, and her then Chinese husband, bought a charming place in a lovely village named Daolingjiang in the Ming Tombs area. I had the pleasure to stay many times and was inspired to get our own place.

So in spring 2001, we bought a run-down cottage in the same village from a middle-aged farmer Ying Chunlai, a small-boned man with few words. Zhang Tong, the former head of the village, found the place for us and acted as the middle-man. Since the land belongs to the state, Ying and I called the deal ‘permanent rental’. At Zhang’s house, I handed over Ying 30,000 yuan and we signed on a contract Ying had drawn up and written out by hand, witnessed by Zhang. It was very simple that it didn’t even mention the money I paid. (The three of us did have our finger prints as if they would make the contract a little more official.) I was so stupid and trusting that I didn’t even ask for a receipt.

I’ll probably pay heavily for this stupid mistake.

Now, Ying wants his house back. The unpleasant drama started a few months ago after I rented the cottage out to a British friend. Ying called me, to say that “they don’t allow us to rent out the cottage any more. There is a new policy.” “Who are they?” I asked. He said policemen from the Ming Tomb. When I asked for the names, he hang up.

Soon I received a court order, saying Ying wants his house back because we didn’t specify the rental years and he demanded that I pay for the legal costs. Taking it back just like that? The cottage wasn’t the same run-down place I bought. I spent nearly 100,000 to renovate it and to build a new wing and to construct a wall and bought the furniture and such.

I consulted several lawyers. None of them feels optimistic about the case. The legal ground for such deals is shaky. Many artists bought houses from farmers in Songzhuang but when some cheeky farmers demanded the house back, they had to give them back. The law is not on their side. I will not be the first victim nor the last, I learnt.

One piece of good news is that, according to law, one can rent a house from a farmer for twenty years. So in theory, I still have 13 years left.

After much hesitation, I decided not to engage a lawyer. Of course, a lawyer costs money. And I know I am dealing a thug who has no moral integrity whatsoever. Even if the court orders Ying to return 30,000, I do not expect to see a penny. When he called me, he even demanded that I ought to pay for the trees that have died!

Part of me just wants to forget about the whole thing. I toyed with the idea of not to attend the hearing. But I decided to put on a fight and not to let the bastard to get away too easily.

So I went to the court hearing in Changping on Sept 10, with one witness, Xiaohong who worked for us as our nanny. She saw Ying counting the money I paid him and she knows the money and effort spent on the cottage. I could have another witness – Zhang Tong’s son, who worked on the house. He agreed to write a written statement. Since he lives in the same village as Ying, and Ying’s son is the head of the village, I wouldn’t want to put him in an awkward position.

The hearing went badly. I know Ying is a rogue but I didn’t expect he could be so low – he told the judge that I never paid him anything! I was so angry that I talked when it was not my turn. This, in turn, angered the judge that he got up and left the courtroom.

I am not sure what is going to happen and what I should do. A romantic idea has turned into a nightmare.

What do you think? What would you do?

picture: my girls playing at the cottage when they were little

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