Meet the American in China who revitalises historic villages by turning them into cultural and economic magnets

The Linden Center in Xizhou, Yunnan province.
PHOTO: Linden Centre

Be they a friend or stranger, vendor or tourist, Brian Linden tries to greet everyone he encounters in the little Chinese village that he has had a hand in revitalising for nearly two decades.

He uses his Chinese fluency to ask how businesses and lives are going, and if tourists are enjoying themselves. They respond with familiar warmth. Many call him Yang Cunzhang, or foreign village head.

Originally from Chicago, the now 60-year-old Linden and his wife, Jeanee, gambled their comfortable life 18 years ago by resettling about 12,500km (7,750 miles) away, in the rural old town of Xizhou – a short drive from the well-known city of Dali in Southwest China’s Yunnan province.

There, they set out to restore a national heritage site – the former home of late renowned businessman Yang Pinxiang. Now known as the Linden Centre, their boutique hotel serves as a bridge for intercultural and international exchanges, and it caters to those looking to experience China’s countryside and rural culture.

The centre’s presence has been a cultural and economic magnet, elevating the whole town long shaped by the Bai ethnic minority group, and turning the village into a successful model of what can be achieved through China’s evolving rural-revitalisation scheme.

Born into a modest home, Linden came to China 38 years ago and was given scholarships to study at the prestigious Peking and Nanking universities, then opportunities to work on a film and for CBS, where he interviewed a number of top leadership officials in the 1980s, including Deng Xiaoping.

And today, at a time when a decline in China-US relations seems to be creating an ever-widening divide between peoples, Linden said he felt he owed it to China to tell his own story and add perspective to attempts to frame China through a homogeneous lens.

Linden said that, in Xizhou and Shaxi – a historic market town in Yunnan where Linden has built a second Linden Centre – at least 90 per cent of the workers and staff were hired locally, from the construction stage to operation.

The centres also help local villagers business-related advice – from building smaller hotels to marketing handicrafts – and this is said to ensure that most of the spending by guests is done in the villages, and most proceeds go into the villagers’ pockets.

“What we were trying to do was inspire the locals to feel they had participated in the whole process, not just somebody building something in their backyard and then saying, ‘Aren’t you proud?’” he said.

As many rural villages in China continue to struggle to find the right stories to tell to attract tourists and business opportunities, the Linden Centre as part of the Xizhou community provides a niche model for China’s rural-revitalisation campaign, as it has successfully integrated into a town with more than a thousand years of history.

Surrounded by the verdant rice paddies and the rolling mountain range, Linden said he knew that he needed to create something not too flashy that blends into nature, which could become an attraction, itself, to bring affluent people to the small village.

“We’re creating a business that really isn’t interfering or disrupting in any way with the locals’ existing lifestyle,” Linden said. “And we don’t interfere with the daily lives in terms of our physical presence footprint in the village. But we do bring in the people, and they’re able to interact.”

One of the major obstacles to future rural development in Yunnan and beyond, according to Linden, is that people with real knowledge are often challenged to come out to these areas and spend extended time, either because of the lack of a good local education system for their kids, or due to the absence of a well-rounded healthcare system.

“I found that, sometimes, we have some really talented people coming from the big cities, and their parents are worried” that living in a small village will make it harder for their children to find a relationship or start a family, he said. “These are the real issues.”

The dilemma could be addressed “by making the villages more sexy”, Linden said, such as by bringing in better education and a more well-rounded social security system. And he expects that to happen when young people living under mounting pressure in big cities realise that quality of life is also important.

In July, the Linden Centre welcomed the most guests in its history thanks to the influx of tourists into Yunnan and Dali as China relaxed travelling rules.

The hotel rooms used to be mostly booked four to six months in advance by foreign guests before the pandemic. Now the rooms are occupied by mostly Chinese guests.

Despite the pandemic taking a heavy toll on their business, like it has on businesses throughout the country, Linden said they are investing in their joy – in a sense that they will be able to help make a difference.

“I want to ensure that our model continues, and I want to ensure that some people still stand up for China,” he said, “and that’s what I’m trying to do.”

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.