An American’s China dream: Brian Linden and Yunnan tourism

Society & Culture

Brian Linden isn’t trying to “save” the Chinese tourism industry, which suffers from top-down planning and dubious standards. But he has taken an extraordinary first step: Believing it can be improved.


It’s midmorning on the bank of Erhai Lake outside of Dali in southwest China. On a sandy point jutting out into the water, a lanky character stands shin deep, jeans rolled up, holding something that looks like a guitar. There’s a drone overhead and a crowd gathered on the beach in front. The man strums and sways as the waves lap up against his calves. In the foreground, a film crew shouts orders: Squat down. Now splash the water. Move left, now right. Lean your head back. Pluck the strings like you’re actually playing the instrument.

The character in this scene is Brian Linden, an American businessman and founder of the Linden Centre, a Chinese government-protected cultural heritage site turned hotel and education center in Xizhou, Yunnan Province. He’s being filmed by the Yunnan Department of Tourism for a promotional video about conservation, an ideal Linden has fossilized in Xizhou to show that it’s possible to develop rural China in a way that’s not driven by quick cash.

That goes against the status quo in China’s highly profitable tourism industry, often built around slapdash development gimmicks. By granting Linden protection of a cultural heritage site the national government is also breaking norms — a move made easier with a marketable story of the Chinese-made American dream. “There’s a nice political idea for them to present that I, as a foreigner, as an American, have come to China and given up everything in America to pursue my dream here,” Linden said over coffee at his hotel in Xizhou. “That’s very flattering to the Chinese and it probably should be.”

That’s given Linden an outsize platform to preserve and protect in little Xizhou, a brand of soft power that requires him to decode layers of the local government to bring his projects to fruition. It’s been touch-and-go, including a three-month period where Linden had to stop and revamp his restoration plans in a licensing snafu. “We thought that the approvals had all been handled by the government as part of the initial contract,” he said. “We were wrong, and the cultural bureau informed us that our initial changes were illegal.”

Linden’s rights to the property — protected at the same level as the Great Wall of China — have toggled between full ownership and rental setup, which is where he stands today. But making those adjustments has allowed Linden to gain, and hang on to, enough favor from the local government to run his business in a cultural relic for more than 10 years. His contracts to run the hotel weren’t signed in swishy Beijing bars over baijiu and cigarette haze. They were connections forged by bringing his 8- and 11-year-old sons to meetings with provincial leaders, teaching them Chinese, and homeschooling them in the hotel’s sunny courtyard.

Linden said Dali leadership saw this familial commitment “bordering on irresponsibility” — as a sign of his long-term buy-in. Linden and his wife Jeanee moved to Dali part-time in 2004. They spent the next four years on-and-off scouting properties to buy with their sons in tow and hopping on motorbikes to go to rural Fujian, Jiangxi, Guangxi, and Guangdong. They settled on Xizhou in 2008, a once underdeveloped farming village without any hotels.

When they first started the project, Linden said the cultural bureau informed them that they were the first business to be run in a nationally protected site. On its website, The Linden Centre is described as an “immersive experience into the rich, living communities of China’s countryside.” In the 1960s, the building was used as a decampment for soldiers from the People Liberation Army. Nowadays, it’s a meeting point for Princeton in Asia Scholars, Shanghai American Schoolers, and well-researched travelers who come to Xizhou to see rural China in bloom.

With prices at his hotel over $100, Linden’s rural oasis is not accessible to the average tourist. But he knows that. He also knows that he has to draw to make sure his place isn’t swept up by the trends of selfie tourism and unregulated development practices that dominate in Yunnan (and many other parts of China).

While the Yunnan government’s official stance is to conserve cultural sites like The Linden Centre, they are still pushing for rapid growth in the region, which makes that conservation challenging. In a report published in February, the Chinese government published a report outlining a goal to “promote cultural tourism and institutional reform” while simultaneously aiming to receive 800 million tourists and bring in a total of 1 trillion yuan ($148 billion) in 2019. In April, the Yunnan Department of Tourism released a statement more than 3,000 cases of shady tourism practices — like budget tours that coerce travelers into shopping at certain businesses — by travel agencies over the past two years.

Yunnan Province is one of China’s largest and most profitable domestic tourism markets. Now that Chinese consumers have more time and money, they’re raring to travel. And these kinds of homogenous, quickfire development projects give people an easy backdrop to show off their newfound leisure time and money.

With clear skies and grand mountains, wealthy real estate moguls swept in to build their fortunes — often on the backs of locals who run their properties. In other parts of Yunnan, developers are turning to a luxury template to bring in tourists, marketing five-star amenities that are guaranteed to succeed but give little back to the local communities. Lugu Lake, a once remote destination in northern Yunnan, is one example where tourism has overwhelmed villages by its pace. One manager at the Department of Tourism — who as a government employee asked to remain anonymous — described this kind of development as exploitative to the minority groups who run the businesses. “People’s souls and spirits have been interrupted,” she said.

Linden said it’s the kind of model that doesn’t take much to copy: a decent wine collection and some bubble tea shops. It’s emblematic of the one-size-fits all development strategy in China more broadly: if it works once, replicate it. Then replicate it again. “That’s not what we’re trying to do,” he said.

Sitting in the breakfast room of his hotel, Linden described the impetus for his move in the 1980s as a disenchanted 20-something who’d lost his faith in the possibilities of life at home. The way Linden talks about it, China swept him up swiftly and easily, and found a special spot for him under its large wing. When Linden and his family moved to China years later, he found a freshness in Yunnan — beyond clean air and snow-capped peaks — in the potential for self-creation, or re-creation, that he didn’t feel anymore in the United States.

His investment in the place was a slow burn, something like the story of Joseph Rock, an Austrian-American explorer and botanist who became famous for chronicling minority life in Yunnan’s remote villages. A National Geographic magazine from the 1930s in Yuhu, the village where he lived in Northern Yunnan, describes Rock as an “imperious and determined explorer.” Perhaps for Linden, like for Rock, influence in China was a product of doggedness. Or a product of whiteness. Or a bit of both.

Linden acknowledges being an outsider is part of why he’s been able to make headway. “China gives us such a great platform as foreigners. So much respect,” he said. That’s emboldened him over the years to make a statement in China that he wouldn’t have attempted back home.

Brian Linden
Brian Linden

Linden is not just a hotel owner in Xizhou, but a sort of local celebrity, with more clout than the average expat. Over the Chinese New Year, Linden said he had 500 people come to their hotel just to take pictures with them. As a foreigner business owner in China — and one who conducts his business in a national relic — appearing in tourism videos and on talk shows aren’t just occasional gigs, but part of the job description. Linden said this kind of visibility is part of why he’s able to keep moving forward. “The more you’re seen, the more you’re protected,” Linden said in a downbeat while being filmed on location.

And Linden has seen a lot. He’s over 6 feet tall, with an easy and deliberate way about him. He speaks in colorful greetings and exaggerated gestures, a social script forged from charisma and necessity. His Chinese flows quick and smooth, and he knows how to smile in way that will make Chinese tourists smile right back. Jeanee is poised and measured, staying back from the spotlight while her husband absorbs it. Together they’ve become a steady fixture in Xizhou village, where they’ve taken it upon themselves to make change.

That change is slow but not impossible. In March, a foreign tourism startup in Yunnan’s capital of Kunming, GoKumning, saw its parent company CloudBridge produce a 12-episode advertising campaign specifically focused on foreigners called “Yunnan: The China You Never Knew,” in partnership with the Yunnan Tourism Department. It features a series of videos of Jordan Porter, a Canadian traveling to 12 places in Yunnan. Yereth Jansen, founder and CEO of GoKunming, said GoKunming has also had to work with, and around, bureaucracy to get its message across. “It takes a lot of time to build that trust.”

“Part of it is kind of a face thing,” Jansen said about the government’s campaign for sustainability, when he estimates 90 percent of the tourism department’s efforts are still devoted to targeting Chinese tourists, the most surefire way of bringing in profit. But he said this project is also driven by the government’s genuine desire to focus more on conservative development, even if they don’t know yet exactly how that will look. “They’re realizing that slower development is a good thing.”

Ethnic conservation is faring far worse in other parts of China, but Linden chooses not to glom onto those weak spots. He knows that his brand of soft power is best wielded when he can focus on the progress that’s being made. He reserves his criticisms for China watchers and government types, who he thinks prefer to lambaste the system rather than look deeper into what’s really happening in rural China. In contrast, he wants to maneuver in ways that prompt change. “In order to be effective here, I have to work within the system,” Linden said.

After 35 on-and-off years in China, he says the kind of changes he’s seen in rural China are a “miracle.” Once a blip next to hipster Dali, Xizhou has come into its own with cool ease. Rows of yellow rapeseed flowers set the backdrop for tourist photos outside the Linden Centre, and locals have opened their own guest houses down the road. At night, looking out over those same fields, crickets sound off like they know that “happy” is the core of the Xi in Xizhou — the character is 喜, literally meaning happy — and they want to embody it, too.

The Linden Centre is one of the most conservative models in Yunnan, despite being run by foreigners. “I’m not trying to be a hallmark greeting card kind of thing,” Linden said about a story that could be easily grounded in clichés and government criticisms. Instead, he wants to show he’s investing in order to raise the threshold, to be more than just good enough.

It’s why he’s willing to don traditional Yunnan garb and stand in ice-cold water to be in kitschy tourist videos. Because he knows this goes beyond Yunnan, and it goes beyond tourism — it’s about questioning, and maybe disrupting, the models used for development and figuring out how to make the powers that be buy into them. In China, that’s more of an art than a science. And for Linden, it’s taken years to learn. “We did what most people would never do in China,” he said.

He’s come to see his story as one of the Chinese dream — though that probably oversimplifies it. After all, in today’s China, pragmatism is essential: learn to work with the system so the system will work with you. Linden says he receives much more support for his work than flak, but if anyone criticizes him for not being more reproachful of Chinese leadership, he has a trump card he can play every time. “They will still acknowledge that I care about China. That I love China.” He’s learned the things to say — and not to say — to maybe make a larger, more subtle statement along the way. For now, he can also point to his center as a quiet testament.

Brian and Jeanee Linden Centre
Brian and Jeanee Linden, via Asia Art Tours