Gary Littman


Garry Littman is the owner and director of The Language House in Geneva which organises English language training for professional people, companies and students. He was a radio and newspaper journalist in his native Australia and ran a restaurant in Kathmandu in his younger days. He is an English language trainer and an aficionado of pétanque.

Nail houses, nunchuks and tattoos

The Chinese call them nail houses (dingzihu) because, like stubborn nails, they are difficult to remove.

In English they are more commonly referred to as holdouts; properties that their owners refuse to leave to make way for new construction. (The phrasal verb, to hold out, means to resist or survive in difficult circumstances).

Most of them end up being demolished to make way for skyscrapers, highways, airports and shopping centres. Some remain bizarre monuments to the past. They are the timber, bricks and mortar Davids who doggedly hold out against the cement and steel Goliaths of progress.

Here are the stories of five nail houses and their stubborn nails (owners).

Edith the urban legend

In 2006, Edith Macefield, aged 86, refused to sell her house in Ballard, Seattle to developers, despite being offered almost 10 times its value. She became an urban legend, inspired the Pixar film Up, and launched a genre of tattoos. She has a revered following in China and Korea, home of the world’s most extraordinary nail houses.


Edith Macefield’s home in Ballard, Seattle

 A scene from the Pixar animation UP

 Londons’ gap tooth

The Wickham Department Store in the East End in London was built in 1927 and promoted as the Harrods of East London.

However, the three Spiegelhalter brothers who were all born on the premises refused to part with their home and jewellery shop, leaving a Vanessa Paradis gap tooth in the façade of the impressive department store. (Halt in German and English means stop).


 The Wickham gap tooth

Landing on the farm

Anyone flying into Japan’s Narita International Airport may be alarmed to see a farm house and farmlands in the middle of the airport. Some farmers refused to leave their lands when the second runaway was built. For many years the second runway was unused, blocked by farmers living and working within 400 metres of its southern end.

The Narita Airport farm

Nails and nunchuks

But none of these holdouts come close to surreal history of the nail house of Chongqing in the south-west of China. In 2004, 280 homeowners moved out, leaving Wu Ping and her husband, Yang Wu, in a lonely struggle.

Their refusal to leave tapped into national resentment against corrupt developers and local officials who were known to use violence and intimidation to evict tenants. The block was excavated to lay foundations. It left their home an island, sitting on a 10 metre high mound of soil.

No-one was quite brave enough to threaten Yang Wu, a martial arts expert. Legend has it, that after being forced out, he reoccupied his house by using a pair of nunchuks to sculpt 10 metres of stairs from the bottom of the pit to his front door before hoisting the national flag to the top of his house. In 2007 an agreement was reached and the house was demolished.


China’s most famous nail house

Living in the fast lane

Duck farmers Luo Baogen and his wife refused to make way for a major highway. Contractors were forced to build the road around their house in China's eastern Zhejiang province.

Mr Luo was the only one of 459 households to reject the relocation plans. After a four year stalemate the house was demolished.


Life in the fast lane  

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