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