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The Exemplary Foreigner: An Interview with Brian Linden

In the courtyard of the Linden Centre. From left to right: Jeanee, Brian and Gary.

In the courtyard of the Linden Centre. From left to right: Jeanee, Brian and Gary. Image taken by Doug Smith.

In late November 2015 I revisited The Linden Centre in the historic town of Xizhou (喜洲). Xizhou is on the Erhai basin only a few kilometres from the old town of Dali. For well over a thousand years, if not longer, Dali been an important crossroads for trade, migration and pilgrimage. It sits on both the Southern Silk and Ancient Tea Horse Roads. Over the last three decades it has become a Mecca for tourists. In more recent years it has developed into a favoured destination for China’s growing phenomenon of lifestyle migration (on which I have recently published a paper which you can find here). (note that the content of this interview will be incorporated into a paper on cultural heritage activism; the paper is currently under review).

Xizhou was the home of many successful Bai (the local ethnic group) merchants who plied their trade on the tea road. They poured their money into building many beautiful courtyard mansions in Xizhou. In 2004 Brian and Jeanee Linden, with children in tow, moved to Xizhou with the sole purpose of restoring a heritage listed mansion into a hotel and cultural activity centre. It took a lot of persistence and patience to convince the local authorities to let the project move forward. But in the end the Linden’s passion for Bai culture and their vision of creating a unique cultural retreat won the day. After more than a decade in operation, and having expanded to include other historic buildings in Xizhou and with plans for retreats outside of Dali, the Lindens have developed a good model for sustainable cultural heritage. The background to this widely recognised achievement is the very rapid pace of urbanisation and development in the Erhai basin which is threatening the very culture and way of life that made it an attractive destination for tourists and migrants in the first place.

I sat down with Brian Linden on a beautiful sunny day on the terrace of the Linden Centre to discuss Brian’s views on matters of tourism and cultural heritage in China, and the vision he and his family are attempting to realise.

The gate to the old town of Dali before the tourist rush begins.

The gate to the old town of Dali before the tourist rush begins.

Gary: Before we even get to China is there anything in your background that we should be aware of?

Brian: The reason why we have the perseverance and patience to do this project in China is because China has created who I am. China gave me opportunity and beauty in my post-1984 life. Before China I was cleaning carpets to get through community college. My father is illiterate, my mother never finished high school. I’d never even heard of Stanford let alone dreamed I get a scholarship to do my PhD there. For that reason I approach China differently. I don’t see China as a place to make a profit. These projects are like my teachers, like the professor who changes your life. I don’t think this approach is very common.

Gary: I’m very interested to hear you say that. I think your approach is more common among those foreigners who came to China in the 1980s, before China became the economic powerhouse of the 1990s and beyond. One thing that it does raise is an observation I’ve made over the years of a certain cohort of foreigners who are very attracted to China for aesthetic or cultural reasons. Many of these people are deeply engaged with Daoist theory and practice, for example, or martial arts, or traditional Chinese music or medicine. I think these people make a special attachment to China, different say to those who only come to China to make money or who only ever dabble at the edges of what is a very deep and rich culture.

Brian: I think for this project the cultural connection is very important. There were so many obstacles in getting this up and going. So many people were discouraging us from doing this project.

Gary: How did it all start?

Brain: We were looking to give something back to China. I don’t know how you feel when you go back to Australia and interact with your family and friends there, many of whom might not know very much about China, but after visiting over 100 countries in my previous job in international education I realised that narrow-mindedness was something that could be found everywhere. What really worried me was that those people in my country who were making important decisions not only knew very little about China but actually seemed to think that China didn’t matter.

A Daoist temple on Weibaoshan Mountain, about five hours drive from Dali. Dali Prefecture is home to a rich and diverse living cultural heritage, but one that is faced with the prospect of change.

A Daoist temple on Weibaoshan Mountain, about five hours drive from Dali. Dali Prefecture is home to a rich and diverse living cultural heritage, but one that is faced with the prospect of change.

Gary: Why Dali? How did you come to choose Xizhou as the site of your hotel and cultural project?

Brian: So in 2004 we came back to China with a view to establish a kind of ‘cultural retreat’, something like the Aspen Center. We wanted to be based somewhere rural, somewhere away from the big cities. Initially we looked all over China. We took our kids out of school and started travelling. First we were in Jingdezhen  (Jiangxi Province) and then we had a look around southern Anhui. Dali really attracted us because of its openness and its acceptance of outsiders. Dali has a kind of seductive charm. As I said in a recent interview with Yunnan Television, Dali has a lot of sex appeal, everybody wants to come to Dali and live out their own erotic fantasies, but in a couple of years they will be looking for the next object of desire. So the trick is to get beyond the shallow sense of seduction and go deeper, build some personality, create some insight. Dali shouldn’t just prostitute itself to anyone who comes here, it needs to be a lot more discerning.

Gary: Interesting metaphor. In your discussions with government officials do they get this point? Do they see beyond the desire to cash in on Dali’s appeal and make a quick buck?

Brian: Yes, totally. The former deputy prefecture leader, with whom we interacted quite a bit, said that the most important thing he learnt on the job [like many leaders he was not from Dali, part of a government policy in rotating leadership, bringing outsiders in, and so on, to avoid nepotism and the development of local power cliques] was that Dali had to learn how to say ‘no’, to put in place zoning regulations and enforce them.

Gary: How did you come to choose Xizhou?

Brian: To do something like the Aspen Center we needed size. In China, for various reasons, its hard to find a large traditional structure that we could use. When we found this place we knew it was suitable. It’s on three mu of land, it’s two stories and both are functional. Even then it still took about a year to convince everyone that needed to convinced that the project was worthwhile. But passion is infectious and slowly our support began to build. We weren’t wealthy investors, we had a young family and a passion. We took our kids, then aged five and eight, to all the meetings. People could see that we are earnest and they began to get interested. When we showed deference and respect we got a lot of respect back. The government was taking a bit of risk with us. We didn’t have a lot of money – by which I mean there wasn’t any chance of corruption or financial gain for certain officials – there was no precedence for what we were proposing to do – even to this day in China there aren’t any other national heritage buildings like this one operating in private hands. This was an experiment. We were far enough away from Beijing to avoid direct intervention. I don’t think they would have given this to a Chinese person, at least in those days, for fear that the outcome would have been deemed to commercial and culturally inappropriate [note: during the 1980s and early 1990s in order to raise money some local cultural bureaus turned cultural heritage buildings into pool halls or cheesy museums]. When Beijing did finally get down here to have a look at we were doing the hard work was already done and they were very supportive.

Mother and daughter from Tibet, selling medicinal products at the annual 'Third Month Festival' in Dali. The festival is a combination of religious, cultural and commercial activities. It has a history of at least several hundred years.

Mother and daughter from Tibet, selling medicinal products at the annual ‘Third Month Festival’ in Dali. The festival is a combination of religious, cultural and commercial activities. It has a history of at least several hundred years.

Gary: What is the Centre’s primary mission?

Brian: I think our greatest mission, and this may sound a bit idealistic, is a softpower mission. In China most of the softpower initiatives are being conducted by the government. I think that there is space for others to operate in this field. When I ask my American friends to name three prominent Chinese people they scratch their heads. ‘Chairman Mao, Yao Ming, Jacky Cheng’. Is this the best we can do? A country of 1.3 billion people with a history of 5,000 years? So I thought let’s develop something that will allow people to have a different experience.

Gary: So the cultural experience and education has been something that has been incorporated since the word go?

Brian: Yes. We had to make a distinction right from the beginning. We didn’t want to just be labelled as a ‘luxury hotel’ or ‘boutique hotel’. Rich Chinese – the so-called ‘tuhao’ [土豪; hillbilly rich] – judge the hotel experience by how big was the room, how big was the bed, did my sofa come from Italy, and so on. That kind of client is not the kind of client we want. We are the antithesis of that, we want people to come here for the cultural experience. The clientele is now 50% foreign, 50% Chinese. But it did take a while for the Chinese clients to come round. The Chinese guests are attracted by the preservation aspect but also by our story.

Gary: So if the mission regarding the foreign guest is to educate them about the basics of Chinese culture, then what is the mission when it comes to Chinese guests?

Brian: I tell them very clearly that ‘China’s Dream’ [the dream campaign was launched soon after Xi Jinping came to office in 2012; for more visit this link] should embrace the world. I tell them that the ‘China Dream’ is a very narrow, chauvinistic and selfish dream. The way the ‘China Dream’ is depicted it is only a dream for Chinese people, outsiders aren’t included. The ‘American Dream’ is open to anyone and has been a major motivation for migrants as well as born and bred Americans. I’ve invested everything I have, employ over seventy people, could live here all my life, but I still have apply for a visa every year, and I will never be treated as ‘a local’. What is my China Dream? China has to grow and it has to grow and embrace the outside world and make room for those who also have respect for Chinese culture and China’s cultural heritage.

Gary: What was the reaction of the local community to the project once it had gotten under way?

Brian: There was a sense of immediate respect. We only used local workers. Most of the other tourism development projects are completely run by outside contractors from Kunming or Sichuan. We found an architect who was an Yi woman [the Yi are one of the local ethnic groups] from nearby Weishan. We’ve since stayed true to our mission. There have been plenty of opportunities to develop and open up new centres. We’ve been approached by many investors, but it was obvious to us that they weren’t really interested in preservation and what we were doing, it was more just a gimmick to get a foreigner to head up the operation. So we have declined those offers.

Gary: I remember from a previous conversation that you are often notified when a local temple or heritage building is going to be demolished, you go on site and try to salvage whatever you can?

Brian. Of course. The problem is that we now almost have too much stuff!

A healthy bowl of rice noodles to start the day! The noodles in Dali are a culture of their own.

A healthy bowl of rice noodles to start the day! The noodles in Dali are a culture of their own.

Gary: But why is the destruction happening in the first place? You would be well aware that there is a cultural heritage renaissance taking place in China. There is so much discussion about the role and place of traditional culture and cultural heritage at all social levels. So why is that heritage being destroyed here in Dali and elsewhere in China?

Brian: From my understanding, and looking at it more from a governmental point of view, the government is always going to err on the side of stability in the villages. There are detailed heritage laws. Nothing should be touched in Xizhou but buildings are being destroyed all the time. Originally we had 110 protected structures and now it is down to about eighty [this is unfortunately a national trend]. People want what Dali has to offer right now, but they treat Dali as a bit of harlot, and they come here, chose a site and then do what they like without any enforcement of heritage rules. These outside developers know that they can manipulate the governments fear of instability in the villages. So the developers go to a village and tell them ‘let me lease this for fifteen years, I’ll build a new modern building and in fifteen years you will have a new home’. The development is so fast and large that its happening everywhere. The government knows if they try to enforce heritage rules the villages will be up against them. This is the irony. In the West we think of the Chinese government as all powerful and draconian. The reality is that in these villages the people have an incredible amount of freedom. They don’t care what the government says.

Gary: Why is it important to preserve cultural heritage? In trying to convince the villagers you have an uphill battle.

Brian: That’s a good question. I think there is a sense of place that comes with your identity. What is it that China can project in terms of its identity that is different? Most of the Chinese cities all look the same these days. When I think of America I think of the creative energy there. China has a repository of traditional culture, something that is not threatening to the state, but it has yet to find a way to creatively tap that resource. The creative energy in China is tightly controlled. This is the essential contradiction. I love material culture, material culture that has a direct relation to the past, a Bai past, a Chinese past, our collective human past. It’s an aesthetic. I’m proud of this achievement as a human. But you can’t convince people to have a lower standard of living just based on an aesthetic.

Gary: Where do you see Dali and Xizhou in ten or twenty years time?

Brian: Dali Old Town is already at a point where I’m not too interested anymore. Last year we had a sustainability meeting and at the end of the meeting everyone said a few words. There was a lot of people pointing the finger, blaming government or blaming developers for all that is happening. But one of the heads of a large American museum said that he was concerned about what was happening on Renmin Road where these artistic types have their stalls. He said they are going to change the image and feeling of what Dali is. There are no Bai people with stalls on Renmin Road.

Gary: That’s a good observation. But I don’t think it understands the background and context. It seems to me that Renmin Road is a unique space in China. I look at it through the prism of lifestyle migration. In the West the literature on lifestyle migration mainly focuses on the middle-class. Either we get a ‘sea change’ where they move to the coast – very common in Australia – or a ‘tree change’ where they move to the rural areas. In China I think we have the phenomenon of the ‘mountain change’ whereby people from the eastern seaboard seek to escape the pollution, congestion and pressures of urban living by moving to the less populated and cleaner environs of western China. And of course Dali is probably the number one destination. There are seasonal migrants in the form of the tuhao [hillbilly rich]. Or more semi-permanent migration of the middle-class variety who come to Dali and set up a business such as running a hostel. That fits well with the Western literature on lifestyle migration. But in Dali I think you have a much broader socio-economic spread in terms of the types of migrants. On Renmin Road there are young people from across China seeking to make a few dollars so they can live in Dali. There isn’t anywhere else in China where you can do this, certainly not in such a desirable destination. There aren’t many places in China where you can busk or set up a stall without having to worry that the ‘urban enforcement bureau’ [chengguan 城管] are going to hassle you. Maybe it’s a combination of being so far from Beijing – Heaven is High and the Emperor Far Away – and also the openness and tolerance that we discussed earlier. Of course now maybe things are changing. Everything in China comes back to scale. Ten years ago when it was smaller it was okay, but now everyone wants to come to Dali, rich and poor. The arrival of the McDonald’s at the corner of Renmin and Fuxing Roads just shows that Dali Old Town is now entering a new period.

A poster for the 1959 film 'Five Golden Flower' (五朵金花). The film is a Bai love story set in Dali. The film was very popular nationwide and in the 1980s became a major nostalgic draw card when Chinese tourists started getting more mobile.

A poster for the 1959 film ‘Five Golden Flower’ (五朵金花). The film is a Bai love story set in Dali. The film was very popular nationwide and in the 1980s became a major nostalgic draw card when Chinese tourists started getting more mobile.

Brian: What I see happening in the old town is what has happened elsewhere in other Chinese ‘old towns’. It just becomes a bar district packed with tourists with little space for local culture to shine through. Travel is a relatively new phenomenon for Chinese people. They like what they see in the old town. They just want to be entertained and gaze at the spectacle. Look at Sante Fe. It has a population of just about one hundred thousand people. But it is also America’s second largest art market after New York. It was started by artists who moved to the area inspired by local Indian culture and art. I don’t see anything like that happening in China, let alone in Dali. What happens is that outsiders, whether artists or developers, come here with a business model from Beijing or Shanghai. I’d like to think that with our projects maybe we can start to encourage artists and other creative people to come to Dali to learn from and experience its unique culture.

Gary: Talking of Santa Fe and hippy types reminds me of an experience I had during my last visit to Dali. An Australian friend took me for a ride on his motorbike and we were going through the country roads between the villages. Something caught my eye. It was a VW Kombi van parked in the middle of a field – it was winter – and there were two people sitting around a campfire just next to it. Ah! We discovered the Chinese hippy! It was fenced off and I went through the gate and read the signs. I gathered that in summer it was full of flowers and there were objects like an old Cinderella type carriage with which you could take photographs for an entry fee. It turned out that the Kombi van was just one of those objects. It wasn’t a real Kombi van, it was just an old Chinese van painted to look like one. And the two ‘hippies’ turned out to be ma and pa farmers from some mountain village who were just the caretakers during the slack season. Well that about summed it up for me. It’s all fake.

Brian: In America I like this practice we have, you might call it a social contract between society and the government. Local communities have a lot of civic pride and genuine concern – and most importantly participation – in their community. In China I don’t see that civic pride manifest in same way. The villagers only care about themselves and what they can do as a household to get ahead.

Gary: This is an important topic in terms of civil society or political/community participation. Perhaps because people in China are fairly restricted in terms of how they can get involved in the grassroots government of their own community they have no interest. Instead of doing what they should they just go ahead and do what they want.

Brian: And that is where I think China really suffers right now. It’s not able to draw upon local talent. On the contrary there’s suspicion. So you don’t have any civic responsibility. It fosters this kind of only care for yourself and family attitude.


  • May 16th 201607:05
    by Allen Rowbotham


    My wife Lorraine and I stayed at the Linden Centre some time ago. The time spent there was very enjoyable and it was good to see how Brian and his staff worked together to ensure that the Centre was preserved while at the same time allowing clients to experience the better side of Chinese culture. The local townspeople were also a joy to interact with and I would encourage everyone who has an interest in Chinese culture to put the Linden Centre on their “to do” list
    Allen Rowbotham

    • May 18th 201621:05
      by Gary


      Thanks for your comments Allen. Yes, the Linden Center is definitely worth a visit. The Centre is also open to ‘day visitors’. Cheers, Gary.

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