LIVING THE AMER­I­CAN DREAM

How a hote­lier from Chicago is achiev­ing suc­cess with his bou­tique ho­tel busi­ness by em­brac­ing Chi­nese cul­tures and tra­di­tions.

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - PEOPLE - By ALY­WIN CHEW

he Lin­den Cen­ter in the sleepy vil­lage of Xizhou, Yun­nan prov­ince has of­ten been la­belled as a luxury bou­tique ho­tel, but in­stead of pro­vid­ing guests with branded toi­letries, limou­sine chauf­feurs and per­sonal but­ler ser­vices, the ho­tel owner is fo­cus­ing on what he be­lieves luxury is re­ally about — learn­ing.

Lin­den Cen­ter is Amer­i­can Brian Lin­den’s first ever ho­tel ven­ture in China and it highly en­cour­ages guests to join tours with their guides to ex­plore Xizhou through ac­tiv­i­ties like hik­ing and in­ti­mate vis­its to the homes of the eth­nic groups Bai and Hui peo­ple — which ex­plains why none of the rooms comes with tele­vi­sions, mini-bars or black­out cur­tains, stan­dard fix­tures in a con­ven­tional luxury ho­tel.

“The only luxury as­pect to this place is that we al­low guests to have a very spe­cial ex­pe­ri­ence in a coun­try where it’s hard to have one now,” says the 52-year-old.

“In China, ev­ery­one throws money at the hard­ware — you can build a ho­tel next to your com­peti­tor and have big­ger bath­tubs or bet­ter tele­vi­sions. No one re­ally spends any time on the soft­ware, the spirit of the place,” he adds.

But don’t be mis­taken, be­cause the Lin­den Cen­ter — a re­stored an­cient man­sion that has been clas­si­fied as a Class A his­tor­i­cal relic — is nonethe­less a beau­ti­ful place for a get­away. From the per­fectly man­i­cured gar­dens to the charm­ing an­tiques found all around, the com­pound is a highly aes­thetic ode to Lin­den’s pas­sion for China’s rich cul­ture. His ap­proach has ob­vi­ously paid off, be­cause the ho­tel was last year nom­i­nated for the US Sec­re­tary of State’s Award for Cor­po­rate Ex­cel­lence, in ad­di­tion to a slew of other ac­co­lades. And now, nearly seven years since its estab­lish­ment, Lin­den is ready to un­veil his sec­ond bou­tique lodg­ing in April.

The new ho­tel, named Lin­den Com­mons, is lo­cated just a 10-minute walk away from Lin­den Cen­ter and will con­tinue to build on the theme of ed­u­ca­tion with fa­cil­i­ties such as a cooking school, a tex­tile work­shop, a paint­ing stu­dio and even an on-site kiln. Be­sides cham­pi­oning mean­ing­ful travel ex­pe­ri­ences and pro­mot­ing the lo­cal cul­ture, Lin­den’s ho­tel op­er­a­tions also aim to give back to the com­mu­nity.

“We em­ploy over 80 peo­ple, the ma­jor­ity of whom are from the lo­cal vil­lage, and through train­ing and job pro­mo­tion, we are try­ing to give our lo­cal staff real vo­ca­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties that will al­low them to com­fort­ably re­main in their vil­lage,” says Lin­den.

The Amer­i­can also runs Yang Zhuo­ran, a com­plex for over­seas stu­dents. The fa­cil­ity in­vites pres­ti­gious in­sti­tutes like the Sid­well Friends School — at­tended by US Pres­i­dent Obama’s daugh­ters — to con­duct a se­mes­ter of lessons in Xizhou, while get­ting to learn about Chi­nese cul­ture and in­ter­act with the lo­cals.

Lin­den Com­mons, which took 18 months to re­store, is twice as large as his first ho­tel, and one could per­haps draw a par­al­lel to the owner’s blos­som­ing ca­ma­raderie with the lo­cals.

While at the con­struc­tion site of his new ho­tel, Lin­den greets one of his work­ers with a big em­brace and in­vites her over for Chi­nese New Year din­ner. Dur­ing a visit to a Hui eth­nic group wed­ding, Lin­den is seen play­ing with the boys near an al­ley­way. He is ap­par­ently so popular with the lo­cals that many of them even call him their mayor.

A ca­reer in pol­i­tics is an un­likely path that Lin­den will take, though he did ap­pear in a re­cent Com­mu­nist Party video, seen shak­ing hands with a gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial. Be­cause of the his­tor­i­cal value of his ho­tel premises, Lin­den works closely with gov­ern­ment and cul­tural bu­reaus, and he holds them in high re­gard, say­ing: “All the of­fi­cials I’ve worked with are in­cred­i­bly hard­work­ing and many of them want the best for the com­mu­nity. I’ve not met an of­fi­cial who gave me an im­pres­sion that he’s greedy or cor­rupt. I feel that China to­day is be­ing shaped too much by greedy busi­ness­men and it’s th­ese peo­ple who are abus­ing the sys­tem.”

Lin­den’s pas­sion for a coun­try that is not his own may seem un­usual to many peo­ple, es­pe­cially Western­ers, but it is some­thing that stems from a fas­ci­nat­ing tale of luck, grit and a blind leap of faith, one that be­gan when he was a young adult back in the United States.

Born in a lower mid­dle class fam­ily in Chicago where he at­tended com­mu­nity col­lege, Lin­den moved to Wash­ing­ton when he was in his late teens to work as an in­tern in the State Depart­ment. Of­ten strapped for cash, Lin­den would gate-crash func­tions to freeload on the food and drinks. Lit­tle did he ex­pect that he would one day score the big­gest free­bie of his life — a schol­ar­ship to study in Bei­jing — when he snuck into a Chi­nese em­bassy event and found him­self reap­ing the re­ward of help­ing of­fi­cials look for staff hous­ing in the city.

“That changed my whole life. I went from clean­ing car­pets and never even hav­ing heard of Chair­man Mao to study­ing in a Bei­jing uni­ver­sity ... China has been my only men­tor in life. Ev­ery­thing I do is a way of show­ing re­spect for the op­por­tu­ni­ties that this coun­try has given me,” he says.

Life in China be­gan in 1984 and it proved to be in­cred­i­bly event­ful. Apart from get­ting ar­rested more than a dozen times for wan­der­ing into re­stricted ar­eas, Lin­den also met his wife Jea­nee Quan and even starred in a movie. He even­tu­ally re­turned to the US where he mar­ried Quan and worked as a co­or­di­na­tor for ed­u­ca­tion projects around the world. The cou­ple later opened a gallery in Wis­con­sin deal­ing with Asian an­tiques and be­came par­ents to two boys.

But though life was mov­ing along smoothly in Amer­ica, Lin­den’s heart was al­ways with China. Af­ter much de­lib­er­a­tion, the cou­ple de­cided in 2004 that they would em­bark on a spe­cial project to open a unique ru­ral-based plat­form for in­tel­lec­tual ex­change in China.

In 2007, the Lin­dens sold their home be­fore plough­ing their life sav­ings of more than US$300,000 into the restora­tion of a derelict man­sion in Xizhou that later be­came Lin­den Cen­ter. For now and the fore­see­able fu­ture, Lin­den has no in­ten­tion of re­tir­ing and re­turn­ing to the US. He is still madly pas­sion­ate about shar­ing the beauty of Chi­nese cul­ture and he aims to open five to six more sim­i­lar ho­tels around Yun­nan in the next decade.

“I’m here for a rea­son. I was lost back in the US. I was sup­pos­edly in a coun­try where you could find your­self and have dreams but some­how i ended up find­ing my dream in China,” he says.

“China has one of the long­est cul­tural tra­di­tions in hu­man­ity and it’s just a shame that this is not what the out­side world sees. I love China and I take it very per­son­ally when peo­ple say it is noth­ing but a fac­tory,” he adds.

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