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Seattle’s Edith Macefield becomes example of property rights – in China, after a death

posted by on 2009.12.10, under china, economy, history

Images of Edith Macefield's house in Seattle - the one she refused to sell for $1 million - have shown up on Chinese news sites. The image was taken by Joshua Trujillo, a Seattle Post-Intelligencer photographer at the time. Photo source: Seattle Post-Intelligencer via


Web sites and blogs in China have burst with news in recent days about tensions in the Chengdu area involving a construction company that wanted to build a road through a woman’s house – and her refusal to leave.

The Chinese describe this type of structure as a “nail house.”

And the case of Edith Macefield, the famous woman from Seattle who stayed in her own “nail house,” has surfaced in China.

The Chinese case, which began in 2007, is complicated but the woman reportedly lived in a spacious building in the Chengdu area, which is located in the southwest province of Sichuan.

Some media reports say that she built her house without the proper government permits – but that practice occurs in China and she had been living in it for more than a decade.

She asked for more than $1 million to leave. Compensation was offered but only for the building materials and decorations and not the market value.

The construction company wanted to build a road through the structure to a sanitation plant, according to Chinese Web sites.

The construction company – or agents of it – showed up at this large house last month with heavy equipment and began demolishing it. On the second floor, construction officials tried to enter through a door leading to the living area.

In protest, the woman went to her roof and burned herself. She died two weeks later. She has been identified as Tang Fuzhen.

Her death has sparked online outrage in China, especially since photographs of her burning have been posted on Chinese Web sites.

Chinese police in the Chengdu area reportedly arrested her relatives, who also were in the house and failed to let the construction officials, or their agents, inside. 

Writers on Chinese Web sites are pointing to the case of Edith Macefield, the stick-to-her guns, stand-her-ground woman from Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, who refused to sell her house for about $1 million in 2007. She died last year at the age of 86.

A developer had to build a complex around her house – instead of on top of its land. Her house now might be elevated.

There is online talk in China about, of all things, the Fifth Amendment from the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights.

The key part that Chinese writers and journalists have honed in on: “nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

A comment posted on includes this message, which after being translated reads: “Naturally, this type of compensation should be higher than the market value.”

Other online writings from China note that there is talk about changing the law to compensate homeowners.

Some famous professors at the prestigious Beijing University have written a letter to the Chinese central government, asking that compensation rules be changed.

Like I said, the case is complex. Details might change.

But my wife, who alerted me to it, and I believe we have summarized the main points.

There are many sites in China that are carrying the news of the woman’s death, including this one. Note: It does include graphic images and it might be best to skip the click.

Andy Yee of Global Voices Online posted his blog entry, complete with a photograph of the house, about the topic on Dec. 8.

So, where to begin on this one?

It shows that of all the rights recognized in the United States, the one that resonates to the point of being discussed widely and openly on Chinese Web sites cuts across age, education level, occupations and home cities – and hits the pocket book.

In the past, Chinese residents have faced orders to move from their houses for construction projects, notably the Three Gorges Dam.

A more recent case involves a woman in Shanghai who refused to move for some type of airport construction project. She finally left.

Another issue to pop out of this is the way some Chinese news sites are using images taken of Macefield’s house by photographers in Seattle.

One of them, Joshua Trujillo, is my former colleague at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He works for the online arm,

Another one has the URL address over it but is the same image that Stuart Isett shot for The New York Times last year.

So, while one idea from the Fifth Amendment is being discussed online in China, the issue of copyright with at least two photographs – or at least proper attribution - shows again that the issues of law, sovereignty and enforcement remain.

NOTE: I’ve also updated this issue since I originally posted this entry.

This image of Edith Macefield's house in Seattle originally was published in The New York Times. A Chinese Web site, though, has put its URL address on it. Photo source: The New York Times via

This image of Edith Macefield's house in Seattle originally was published in The New York Times. A Chinese Web site, though, has put its URL address on it. Photo source: The New York Times via


She didn’t sell at the top of the market when she could have and instead she was being promoted as a folk hero, she died, and now the property is practically worthless today. Who would want to live there? Certainly none of the people there were encouraging her to hold out! Pretty sad really.

Brad Lee ( December 12, 2009 at 11:36 am )

Sad? How so? She didn’t want to move and she didn’t. She left to
the house to one of the workmen on the project and last unheard it was going to used as some museum.

As the old saw has it, a cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. The old dear didn’t care about the money.

The real story is the two views of property rights.

Paul ( December 13, 2009 at 1:06 am )

That property is most certainly “not practically worthless”.

leanne finlay ( December 13, 2009 at 11:53 am )

The value of the home was far greater than $1M to Edith Macefield. Seeing how she passed away a year later, what would she have done with the money? She bequeathed her home to the project manager. She leaves behind a legacy of free will that is not cheapened by the compromise of cash. Similar to the house of spite, we will have this house as a memorial that she stood up to the machine of development.

David ( December 16, 2009 at 2:14 pm )

Mrs. Macefield had cancer and knew it. She just wanted to stay in her own house, where she had lived for decades. The worth of staying where she was, with her familiar things was invaluable to her. Those people who just harp on the “value” of the property don’t understand her values – they’re just focused on the almighty dollar.

The workmen on the project became very fond of her. As I understand it, the foreman on the project took her to medical appointments. They became close friends, which is why she probably bequeathed the property to him. Years before this building project the house was surrounded by a commercial yard with garbage trucks. I used to see Mrs. Macefield out with a broom sweeping her sidewalk. It always impressed me that she cared about maintaining her own standards; she didn’t care what other people did.

JOANN ( December 19, 2009 at 2:41 pm )

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