'Nail Houses': Unlikely Monuments to Anti-Government Resistance in China

Property owners protest eminent domain abuse by staying in their homes -- even as everything around them is torn down.
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A "nail house" in Hefei, Anhui province (Reuters)

Even as its economy slows, China's investment in real estate and infrastructure has lost little steam. A common problem for developers, though, is that especially in and around major cities plum land parcels are often already occupied. The solution? Evict the residents. Sometimes developers or local governments compensate or relocate those they kick out, usually offering less than the original property's value. Sometimes they don't.

But occasionally this combo of force and pay-out doesn't work. The result is what is popularly called "nail houses" or "nail households," referring both to their residents' stubbornness and how they protrude on the skyline of already razed land.

The term's common use dates back to a 2007 incident in Chongqing, when a kung-fu master and his charismatic wife became national heroes for refusing to leave land zoned for a new shopping mall. But nail houses have an enduring popularity in the Chinese media. That's probably because the social theme they embody -- underdogs standing up to power and money -- has only gained in importance as government cronyism widens the gap between rich and everyone else.

However inspiring their stories may be, most nail houses eventually suffer the same fate: demolition, as either the owners back down or their homes are illegally bulldozed.

Here's a look at some nail households from 2007 to the present.

Yang Wu and Wu Ping, the couple who refused to leave an area zoned for a shopping mall, inspired others in China to defy developers. This photo from 2007 shows their home stands as an island surrounded by a construction site up to 30 feet deep. (Reuters)

That same year, in the central business district of Shenzhen, a couple refused to sell their villa for the 6,500 RMB ($840) offered, and instead demanded 18,000 RMB. (Paul Yeung/Reuters)

And that fall, in Guangzhou, the capital of China's Guangdong province, a single house stood defiant in the center of a construction site of a new apartment zone. (Joe Tan/Reuters)

The following year, the owners of a house on the outskirts of Nanjing in China's Jiangsu province insisted that they receive more money for their home, after local authorities announced the land would be used for a wetlands project. (Sean Yong/Reuters)

In 2009, another nailhouse stood defiant in China's Chongqing Municipality. Again, the owners demanded better compensation before they allowed their home to be demolished in favor of a new apartment zone. (Reuters)

In late 2012, an elderly couple refused to sign an agreement to allow their house to be demolished. Their home was the only building left standing on a paved road through their village. (Reuters)

This house is currently diverting car traffic in Xi'an; the owners, a family of seven, refuse to move, opting instead to live without electricity or water. (Reuters)

Gwynn Guilford and Roberto A. Ferdman

Gwynn Guilford is a general reporter and editor for Quartz. Roberto Ferdman is a reporter at Quartz, focusing on Latin American business and economics.

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