By Kenny Sui-Fung Yim
The Peabody Essex Museum is home to a rare, carefully preserved house known as the Yin Yu Tang in Salem, Mass. The home is an authentic achievement that preserves the physical memory of the Huang family of Anhui Province, whose roots can be traced back to the thirteenth century.
The household is considered representative of a lower-middle class family. As part of the merchant class, they were allocated less land than individuals from scholar-official class. They were particularly susceptible to harsh criticism during the middle of the 20th century, and suffered great reversals of fortune, as evidenced throughout the house, most notably by bedrooms converted to storage units. While compact, the house is two stories tall, evidence of how the family adapted their limited space. In contrast to the rapidly rising skyscrapers in contemporary China, this is an architectural marvel of a more modest nature capturing a bygone era.
Visitors enter in groups of approximately 15 to explore the space. They can spend a suggested time of 30 minutes inside. Visitors begin at the exterior of the building, under open skies, where the audio guide explains the minute architectural details including the date of installation for additional windows and the use of feng shui principles to call forth good omens on the house. The exposed roof slopes downward, as water was a sign of life that inhabitants hoped would flow into the household.
Life and death are interwoven in this space. Coffins, death placards and altars to ancestors shared space with chickens and live fish that would be eaten for special occasions, such as weddings. Some rooms were dedicated to the Huang sons and new daughters married into the family, marked by the auspicious sign of “double happiness” on a wooden door.
The house is filled with historical artifacts: mah-jong tiles, wallpaper shipped from England, carved wood panels, chamber pots and lofty beds in cramped spaces. This tour of a 200-year-old house is worth experiencing in person.
Cost is $5 with museum admission ($18). Cost for youth (16 and under) is free. From 10 to 11:15 a.m. and 1:15 to 2:15 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, Yin Yu Tang is unavailable to general audiences due to scheduled school group and adult group visits.