Sometimes the most unlikely partnerships can lead to fantastic results. Such is the story of the Linden Centre, a one-of-a-kind boutique hotel set in the small town of Xizhou, about 20 miles north of Dali in southwest China’s Yunnan province.
The Linden Centre itself is a meticulously restored traditional Bai courtyard home dating back to another era, but it is the cooperation between a visionary American couple and the local government that is the foundation for the Centre’s success – it has already been named one of the top boutique hotels in China by publications around the country.
With full support from the Xizhou government and protected status on par with the Great Wall, the Linden Centre is the brainchild of Brian and Jeanee Linden, who had previously been coming to China to find unique crafts and artwork for their gallery in Door County, Wisconsin.
Brian Linden is a true ‘old China hand’ – he first came here in 1984 to study Chinese and later worked as a cameraman and translator for CBS. He and Jeanee have poured time, effort and money into making the Linden Centre what it is today: an example of how cultural heritage can be preserved while creating a platform for cultural exchange. WildChina spoke with Brian Linden about the Centre’s achievements and its vision for the future:
WildChina: What makes Xizhou a unique travel destination?
Brian Linden: Xizhou is unique because it is a functioning village full of historical complexes. The Xizhou merchants of the 19th and early 20th centuries built over 100 stone and wood courtyard homes, most in the san fang yi zhao bi style [three sides of the courtyard dedicated to living quarters and one side highlighting a work of art].
These structures exist and currently function as homes and local businesses. They have not been gentrified nor sold to outsiders to open t-shirt shops. In this regard, it allows visitors to see a slice of traditional Bai village life – made all the more interesting because of the stunning architectural legacy. Most of our guests stay 4-5 days, and we have yet to have any complaints about Xizhou.
WildChina: What are the goals of the Linden Centre?
Linden: To develop a new travel paradigm that focuses on learning and cultural immersion. This model’s uniqueness is that we are targeting adults, who want an indigenous experience but can also recognize elegance in art and antiques and culinary options. The Centre is completely different from any other hotel in China. We have as many staff as guests usually, and it our staff’s job to help our discerning guests to go beyond the contemporary facades of China.
WildChina: What have the highlights of the Centre’s existence been so far?
Linden: While Jeanee and I did not set out to establish a hotel but rather an intellectual retreat in the Aspen Institute tradition, we are proud to have been selected as the Best Boutique Hotel in China by Sina.com and the most interesting hotel in SW China by Xinzhoukan. We are also the top rated hotel in all of China among over 32,000 other properties on Tripadvisor. We have stories about us in Travel+Leisure, Atlantic Monthly, Food and Wine, dozens of Chinese and Asian magazines and newspapers, and have recently hosted renowned writer Amitav Ghosh who is doing an article about the Centre and region for Condé Nast India.
WildChina: The Centre is obviously a labor of love, what do you find most rewarding about it?
Linden: Because of the CCTV documentaries about us, we have had a constant flow of Chinese visitors from around the country, many of whom have traveled from north and south China to express their support for our efforts. This has been very touching. We also have been moved by our guests’ responses to the local immersions. We consistently have visitors with tears in their eyes when it comes time to leave the Centre.
This is a wonderful feeling, especially when we know that we have helped expand our guests’ views of China. Most guests feel like they never truly felt China or knew the non-urban Chinese until they spent time with us. We are hoping that this expanded view will help lead to greater understanding between East and West.
WildChina: How is Bai architecture different from traditional Han Chinese architecture?
Linden: One of the first things that our guests comment on is the Bai tradition of painting on their homes.
Most houses in Xizhou have series of paintings lining their upper walls, just below the roofline. These paintings, which are still being created on new buildings in Xizhou, depict flowers, animals and even city scenes from 1920s Shanghai and England! The pleasant weather in Dali also has allowed the Bai people to truly incorporate the courtyard space into a year-round functioning living area. These courtyards often serve as open air dining areas for the family, homework space for the children, and weaving areas for the women. Time is spent mainly in these open courtyards, thus greatly expanding the living space for the typical Bai family.
WildChina: How does the Linden Centre interact with the local community in Xizhou?
Linden: We offer weekly language interaction classes with local kindergartens and spend Saturday evenings at our village activity center teaching English to the local community. We are working with the local government to help place visiting doctors, teachers and carpenters in village facilities. We plan to establish a program to help rebuild old temples. We also will be developing a museum in Xizhou.
WildChina: What are your plans for the future?
Linden: We have been inundated with requests to expand our sites to other locations. These often come from local governments who feel that we would be a great asset for their communities. We are seriously looking into Weishan and Kunming as future sites. We also hope to develop our second complex in Xizhou, the former town hall, into an artist-in-residence center and a daytime cooking school.
Photo credit (for first photo): Eagle Online
WildChina is pleased to include the Linden Centre in the WildChina Collection – watch this space for more info!