Scavenger finds treasures in Beijing's vanishing past

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The destruction of this 800-year-old city usually proceeds as follows: the Chinese character for "demolish" mysteriously appears on the front of an old building, the residents wage a fruitless battle to save their homes, and quicker than you can say "Celebrate the New Beijing," a wrecking crew arrives, often accompanied by the police, to pulverize the brick-and-timber structure.

But before another chunk of ancient Beijing disappears entirely, a hospice administrator named Li Songtang can often be found poking around the rubble, looking for remnants that honor what was among the world's best-preserved metropolises until a merciless wave of redevelopment gained the upper hand.

Since the 1970s, when Mao inspired his Red Guards to pummel every "reactionary" Confucius temple and Ming Dynasty statue they could find, Li has been salvaging architectural remnants and stowing them away, sometimes at considerable risk.

Li's struggle to open his Songtangzhai Museum is a tortured tale that involved five years of kowtowing, cajoling and a "gift" of 148 prized items to the Culture Ministry. The $4.50 entrance fee to his museum, which occupies an 18th-century house, does not cover the cost of operations, so Li subsidizes it from his own pocket. He says he has never sold any artifacts.

"I have 1,000 stories that I can never tell," he said conspiratorially, and then offered a few choice words to describe those who blocked his way — and those who have promoted the demise of Old Beijing. But then he corrected himself. "The Communist Party has improved Beijing immeasurably," he said with a taut smile. "They are doing a wonderful job."

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