CHANGING FACES

Jim Spear and Tang Liang describe living in the shadow of the Great Wall

American and his wife move out of Beijing to discover village life, reviving an area with jobs in blossoming sustainable tourism business

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 September, 2013, 4:10am

Nearly 20 years ago, Jim Spear and Tang Liang bought a house in Bohai township, under the Great Wall. They visited regularly on weekends as a break from tough jobs in Beijing. Eventually, they decided to leave the city and take on a different pace of life. They relocated to a tiny village of 400 people with history dating back to the Ming dynasty. After a meeting with the village mayor, they started a sustainable tourism business, which now includes restaurants, an art studio and accommodation.

 

Jim Spear:

What are you doing in China?

I'm an American citizen who's lived in China for 28 years now. I started studying Chinese in the 1970s when I was in the US Army and I had an interest in it so I went back to graduate school and focused on Chinese politics. One day, in the middle of working on my PhD, I decided I didn't want to be a professor so I found a job with a consulting company and moved to Beijing. But before I got to that point I had collected a wife, her name is Tang Liang, and we've been married 31 years. In January 1986, we moved back to Beijing.

What was your connection with the village?

In March of 1986 we heard there was this new tourism location out at the Great Wall called Mutianyu. And so we took our little 212 jeep with some friends and came out for a weekend and fell in love with the place. It was forested, had blue skies and beautiful sections of the Great Wall - it was very dramatic and we kept coming back after that.

Why did you decide to start a business?

After I came to live here full time, the village mayor called me down for a meeting. I was a little afraid because usually when a Chinese official calls you in for a meeting there's an agenda. So I went and he gave me a cup of tea, and then he gave me a lecture. He said: 'In case you hadn't noticed we're having a hard time in the village. The population is ageing, there are no good jobs, we can sell trinkets at the tourism site up at the Great Wall, but that's not really very good jobs. And our village has been here for over 500 years and we don't know how we're going to sustain it into the next generation. You're a rich American, don't you think you should give something back to us, after we let you live in our village?' I have to admit this village mayor got me thinking about what it was like to live in a village and that maybe I did have some responsibility to help.

Is the mayor still there?

He is still the mayor and the party secretary and I see him every day.

How have you contributed to the village?

In the spring of 2006, we leased the abandoned village schoolhouse and turned it into a glass studio and a restaurant, and now, seven years later, we have several restaurants, rental homes, a hotel and a cultural project that's just getting started. And we are one of the largest, if not the largest, employer in the whole township. Our aim is to be a sustainable tourism business.

How many people do you employ?

We have 100 full-time employees from our township of 20-odd villages. Most of the people are drawn from nearby villages. It makes a big impact. In our kitchens, except for the executive chef and a couple of others, the staff are women who were farm housewives and most of them had never had a job of their own before. So they are now getting 12 months of pay cheques and that's kind of revolutionary in a rural family where the wife has the job.

Who are your customers? Has that changed over the years since you've been open?

When we started off almost all of our customers were expats based in Beijing. We also have individual travellers who find us on their own. The bread and butter of our business is actually corporate retreats and also Chinese government entities that do retreats with us. They have lots of money.

What's it been like trying to bring sustainable tourism to this village under the Great Wall?

When I built our hotel, we used existing buildings when possible - structures that were unusable we had every last brick and broken tile saved. And then we used it all to build up the new property. Also, within the limits of what we are able to do as a small-scale, private investor, we adopt modern technology that helps us to save energy, be efficient and be green. For example, basically everything we have done is with LED lighting. Another area of our approach to sustainability is local foods. We are disconnected from the industrial supply chain. About 80 per cent of what we serve is right from our county. Over 90 per cent of what we serve is sourced in China and so the 10 per cent are wines, cheese, olive oil, things that you can't really localise. We're looking for a reasonable balance point.

 

Tang Liang:

Have you and Jim had a different experience of building your business?

I grew up in Beijing. Only during the Cultural Revolution years did I spend time in the countryside. So from that perspective, we had a similar experience because I didn't know the countryside very well. It's a totally different culture, different thinking, mentality, behaviour, everything. I had to learn how to live with these village people and how to communicate and how to show my respect in a way that they understand and accept me as a stranger from Beijing.

Do you sill feel like a foreigner in the village or have they come to accept you?

We have made a lot of effort to be a part of this little community, but on the larger scale we're still not from here. There are families that have been here for generations, for many hundreds of years. I think a lot of times they still look at us as outsiders. That's my honest feeling. We try to live in harmony and respect their way of living and how they do things.

What do you want people to know about your work?

People can see we're really trying hard in this village, we've put some money in here. We have our principles, we really believe in what we're doing. We really believe we are contributing to this area, hiring people, paying taxes, helping the economy and doing the right thing. That's what people can see. We are sincere and passionate about what we're doing.