When the Knight family arrived in Beijing six years ago, they moved into a gated compound on the outskirts of the city, a perfect choice for many expat families. But it didn’t work for the Knights. ‘We had come from a rural village with a huge garden and ended up in The Truman Show,’ laughs Tom Knight, a drama teacher at the Western Academy of Beijing (WAB). ‘We had to make a huge effort to feel like we were in China.’
The move into a suburban environment was especially tough on Tom and his wife Katie, WAB’s Elementary School Learning Collaborator, as both had grown up in the English countryside and before moving to China, spent seven years working in Malawi.
The Knights, and their daughters Lucy, 11, and Emily, 9, didn’t last long in their movie set villa compound. Instead the family moved to a renovated courtyard home in the charming and very authentic village of Hegezhuang that, incredibly, still lies inside the boundaries of Chaoyang district.
When the Knight’s heard the old courtyard homes of Hegezhuang were being renovated they agreed to rent the house when it was still just an empty shell being reconstructed on the original footprint. ‘We were not sure what we were signing up for,’ says Katie. ‘We were nudging each other a bit, saying "come on, shall we do this?"’
Over the months that followed the Knights watched their new home take shape. They were able to make small changes to the design that would better suit their needs. ‘It was fun to watch it come up,’ says Tom. ‘We visited every week to watch the work.’
The Knights are thrilled with their new Beijing lifestyle. They wake up to the sound of sparrows nesting under the eaves of the house and the sing-song shouts of local food sellers who wander the alleys calling for business. Emily practises Mandarin playing with her Chinese friend from the village and the Knights love shopping for fruit and vegetables in the village market.
‘In the late afternoon the village comes to life. Everyone is out buying supplies for dinner and stalls are set up on the street selling different kinds of food. There is even a tank of live fish. The smells of fresh produce and food cooking in little restaurants are beautiful,’ says Tom.
But village life does come with inconveniences. The courtyard houses continue to rely on the infrastructure of the village which does not always cope. Loss of water and electricity (and internet, too), is a regular problem. ‘You need a degree of patience to live here,’ says Katie. ‘Living in Africa definitely prepared us. If the power goes off, we have candles ready to go.’
Village infrastructure continues to steadily improve. Gas pipes have recently been installed, which will reduce the need to burn coal for heating during winter and in turn improve pollution.
The narrow streets and lanes now have street lighting. These once crumbling courtyards became stylish modern homes as part of a development project by Real Life, known for its transformation of other cultural sites in Beijing.
The concept was to preserve Hegezhuang which would otherwise beat risk of redevelopment with high rises. Contracts with local landowners offer guaranteed income and Hegezhuang villagers did the building work. For the Knight’s the scheme delivered amore authentic taste of China, which is just what they were looking for.