Hospitality revives a dying village

Jim Spear and his wife Liang Tang have turned abandoned village houses under the Great Wall into The Schoolhouse, a comprehensive lodging and dining destination in Beijing.

Jim Spear and his wife Liang Tang have turned abandoned village houses under the Great Wall into The Schoolhouse, a comprehensive lodging and dining destination in Beijing.

Jim Spear and Liang Tang at The Schoolhouse

Jim Spear and Liang Tang at The Schoolhouse

JIM Spear ambles around a neat vegetable garden in the grounds of a luxurious country hotel in Huairou, a mountainous district in the north of Beijing. Painted on a wall behind him is an old Chinese saying; “If you drink the water, don’t forget the people who dug the well.”

This philosophy has helped the American transform a small idea into a successful business, which now features a hotel, three restaurants, and more than 10 vacation homes in Beigou, a small village at the foot of the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, 80 kilometers from downtown Beijing.

“I look up at the Great Wall every day,” Spear says in fluent Chinese.

The American even has a Chinese name, Sa Yang, which was given to him by his Chinese colleagues when he lived in California.

His love affair with China started way back in 1980 when he met Liang Tang, who was his Chinese tutor. They married in 1982.

Spear first visited China in 1981 when he went to Peking University for a two-month Chinese course.

“I seized every opportunity to talk Chinese, including to vegetable and fruit peddlers,” Spear says, adding that sometimes he would need a bit of liquid courage to boost his confidence.

He next came to the Chinese capital in 1983 for another two-month language course. This time at Beijing Normal University. During this period, Spear would read the Chinese newspaper the People’s Daily everyday.

Instead of continuing his PhD program in Chinese politics at the University of California, Berkeley, he chose to move to China and started working as a project manager for a consulting and investment firm in 1986. It was during this stint in China that Spear first visited the Mutianyu Great Wall.

Fast-forward two decades, and in 2005, Spear resigned from his job. He and his wife moved to a house in Mutianyu full time.

This was not to be a quiet rural life for the couple.

Spear started to lease vacant homes from villagers and turned them into vacation homes. About the same time, a village head named Li Lianting talked to Spear about his vision of making the village a prime tourist destination.

This drove Spear to start thinking about the challenges facing rural communities in the context of rapid economic development and worldwide environmental degradation and climate change, according to his bio.

In 2006, Spear, his wife and their two friends leased an abandoned village schoolhouse and started a sustainable tourism business. It was important to the group that they involved the local community and maintained as much of the original structures as possible.

In 2015, a former tile factory in Beigou, the village next to Mutianyu, was renovated into a hotel.

They called it the Brickyard.

Beigou was a dying village, as many people had left to work in the city and those that had stayed, for the most part, lived in abject poverty.

“Some people were even embarrassed to say they had been born in the village because of its reputation,” says Wang Quan, the Party chief of Beigou.

The Brickyard gave the village a new lease of life, and more importantly, for the local economy, a way for its residents to make money.

“Eighty percent of our employees are from the village,” Spear says, “and most are employed full time.”

Following the success of the “Brickyard model,” the villagers began to explore hospitality, and now a third of the 100 households in Beigou offer accommodation, according to Wang.

Twelve years ago, the rental lease on a residential plot of around 200 square meters in the village cost 5,000 yuan (US$729) a year. By 2017, that had risen to 60,000 yuan. Leases are usually between 30 and 50 years.

In 2005, the annual per capita income in Beigou was 4,000 yuan. Now it is 27,000 yuan, according to Wang.

While Jim does not have any conventional training in architecture, all of his designs display a natural gift for balancing traditional and modern elements, and, in Spear’s own words a respect for “the village and its past.”

“I have not demolished any of the houses,” Spear says.

Across Spear’s properties, glass and wood sit next to modern fixtures, and in the Brickyard, guest rooms have unobstructed views of the Great Wall.

Spear is, technically, retired, but he is showing no signs of slowing down. In his words, the only time he does is when he closes his eyes, and with a view as beautiful as the Great Wall, who would want to?

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