Building Sustainable Shaxi Yunnan Tourism
Chris Barclay on conservation and localhood in Shaxi
PM: How did you get into historical restoration?
CB: I saw so many great buildings being demolished in cities across China, I thought if I ever had the chance, I would buy something and re-purpose it, so that more people could come and appreciate it and see that it would be worth saving. Maybe this would inspire others to do the same.
PM: Where do you think your urge to preserve things comes from?
CB: I went to Cranbrook School outside Detroit, Michigan in the U.S. The campus consists of an art academy, art museum, girls school, boys school and museum of science. The buildings themselves are all on the national historic register, built by architects such as Sarinen, Wright, and with artwork around campus from Calder and many others. The chapel was built with stone brought from Kent, England and the boys’ school design is also based on a very old school in England. So the whole place is a living work of art and I developed a deep appreciation for design.
When I came to China, I saw so many beautiful vernacular buildings in Beijing that had been abandoned, used as dumps or turned in to coal depots. I felt it was a shame that no one cared for these places. To lose one’s heritage is really something that you can never buy back.
PM: How did you come up with the name Ginkgo Society? Do you have a special relationship or history with ginkgo trees?
CB: Originating in China, the ginkgo is the world’s oldest living tree species and is venerated in the East as a sacred symbol of wisdom, longevity and health. Its leaves and nuts have been used for centuries in Chinese medicine and have proven qualities to boost mental capacity and fight disease.
Ginkgos are widely used as ornamental trees in the West, given their resistance to disease and ability to thrive especially in cities, amongst the pollution and poor soil. It is these core values of longevity, wellness, wisdom and adaptability that embody our community spirit.
PM: Tell us about your journey that led you to founding the Ginkgo Society in 2012.
CB: Our first daughter had passed away in 2009 and both my wife and I were in our mid-40s and didn’t believe we would have another child. We had tried many interventions and therapies but weren’t successful. In March 2011 we decided to take a break from the fertility regime and come to Shaxi at a friend’s suggestion–he was a travel writer who had come several times to the area. We visited the Nunnery of Sheltered Mercy (慈荫庵) and my wife prayed to the Guan Yin Who Gives Children in the main shrine there.
Soon after we returned to Thailand, she was pregnant and our daughter was born in January of 2012. So we decided to donate to the temple, but the government were keen to let us manage it, to protect it and use it as a visitor’s center, in addition to having it still function as a religious center. I set up Ginkgo in Dali as a way to legally restore and manage the temple, which also houses a restaurant and gallery, plus classrooms and activity areas.
There's a short video about our experience here.
PM: Take us through the moments involved in rebuilding the Pear Orchard Temple. Why is it also called the Sheltered Mercy Nunnery?
CB: The temple didn’t have an English name, and the translation of the Chinese is Sheltered Mercy Nunnery, which is a little hard to remember. The name sheltered mercy comes from the main shrine to Guan Yin, also known as the Goddess of Mercy, or Goddess of Compassion in Buddhism and Daoism. The temple is surrounded by old growth pear trees, so I thought Pear Orchard Temple was fitting as a translation. We replaced every roof truss, every floor, rebuilt walls, windows and doors and installed electric and water. It is a ground-up renovation that took 3 years and $250,000 of our own money.
PM: When was the Pear Orchard Temple built? Can you share some of its history and the community of nuns that lived there? I’m interested in the nexus of monastics, if any, with the local economy and whether the Temple was patronized by local merchants as well as seasonal traders who passed through Shaxi.
CB: It is believed that this temple is the third iteration after fire and earthquake destroyed the earlier versions. It was likely originally built in the Ming Dynasty, around the same time as Hai Yun Ju Nunnery in Shibaoshan. The most recent major renovation was 1916. There were at least two nuns here as late as the 1960s, but since then there have not been any living at the temple. During renovations, we found an inscribed tablet from the 1970s, which was a Diantou Village elder recounting the history of Shaxi and this temple.
PM: And other restoration projects that you have completed or are working on in Shaxi?
CB: We rebuilt a family courtyard in Xia ke Village as homestay accommodation for school groups that come for social enterprise work and cultural learning. Our requirement was that the family continue to live in the courtyard, and we pay them rent plus some per diem to cook, guide and clean for the school groups. We installed new solar hot water showers and toilets which are really nice.
PM: Are you mainly involved in the public relations side of both conservation projects and sustainable tourism? What does a typical day look like for Chris Barclay in Shaxi?
CB: I stay at the Old Theatre, try the new offerings for breakfast (cornbread pancakes last time), chat with staff, meet with my partner, Mr. Wu, go visit the Li family in Xia Ke Village, go to the Pear Orchard Temple for lunch or early dinner. I will have some wine at Old Theatre, as we have a very nice international selection. Sometimes I will meet with govt in Jianchuan or receive a delegation. Mostly I go around on my bike and visit with neighbors. I will have dinner one evening at our builder’s house, Mr. Yang. Everything is quite in flow, with casual discussions instead of formal meetings where possible.
PM: How long have you been interested in sustainable travel? How do you define the term?
CB: I became interested with my first project, the Yangshuo Mountain Retreat, as it was in an ecologically sensitive area on the Yulong River.
I wanted to protect our surroundings so started researching on what green hotels were doing. We made this conservation into a selling point that until now, almost none of our competitors have thought to copy. Sustainability to me is using existing resources to grow vs. having to build lots of new infrastructure and bring in new resources, and creating a high degree of participation for local people in the economy.
PM: What do you see as the main challenges in implementing sustainability travel initiatives in Shaxi?
CB: The government doesn’t have a lot of good models. Looking at Dali and Lijiang, these are all mass tourism models, not small-scale quality and value models. So their first instinct is to make a gate and charge money to go in. That immediately puts visitors off. Then they encourage a ton of new construction, as outsiders take over local housing in the old town, and locals need to move out. They look at mass tourism as the key to growth, building big bus parking areas, making new roads, trying to focus tourism in the old town vs. expanding it into villages so more local people can take part. It is a failed model but the Chinese government is not designed to try new things or take risks, so here we are. I share my opinions with the government, offer my time and support so it may yet change.
PM: How have your perceptions of sustainable tourism changed since you founded the Ginkgo Society in 2012?
CB: Local people aren’t excited about it. They don’t easily buy into it. Even when you show them things can work, they don’t trust it. So outsiders come in with money and take the business away from them. Most local people in Shaxi, are very practical, short-sighted and narrow-minded. They are also very risk averse and don’t care that much about getting rich. They are small farmers and merchants, not entrepreneurs in the newly developing local tourism economy. There are outliers, local people who are visionary and daring, such as my partner Mr. Wu, but there are very few like him. It is why mostly ethnic Han Chinese from big cities get the big rewards in the economy – they are forward-thinking risk takers and fast learners.
PM: Part of the enjoyment of travel–an enormous part–is letting yourself experience things you do not understand, allowing it to reanimate our reality, stumbling on the unexpected discoveries. What kind of things do want your clients to discover while they are in Shaxi? And what would you like them to take away from the experience?
CB: We encourage guests just to walk or bike through the villages and look around. Local people are very friendly and welcoming. They’ll often invite you into their courtyard and offer you tea or fruit from their trees. They will want you to stay for lunch and maybe dinner. I think guests will be blown away by how hospitable and open people here are to strangers.
PM: Do you have a favorite place in Shaxi that you don’t necessarily take your clients to? If so, what makes its special?
CB: It’s the Haiyunju Nunnery at Shibaoshan. It’s such an active temple, with music, worship, incense, candles and very hospitable local village elders running the temple. You rarely see temples like this in China – most are empty museums and charge admission. Not every guest is excited about temples as I am, so unless they express an interest, we send them to the grottoes at Shizhong temple, or the cliff temples at Baoxiang temple. Those are the “famous” temples that the government promotes, but Hai Yun Ju isn’t on the map, through it’s just past the main entrance at Shibaoshan.
PM: What kind of groups have you hosted so far? Can you share a memorable moment from one of them?
CB: Service learning for college students and high school students, visiting government delegations, corporate groups, eco-tours. We have the high school groups build greenhouses up in the Yi villages, and there’s a great satisfaction in seeing them complete these projects, as they’re a big benefit to the Yi farmers.
PM: What other projects do you have in the pipeline for Shaxi?
CB: Nothing right now. Growth in Shaxi is very slow and there is an overcapacity of guesthouses and restaurants. Currently we are marking trails up on the mountains behind the Old Theatre Inn for adventurous guests to hike.
PM: Where is home now–Thailand, Yunnan, the States? How do you define “home?”
CB: I live most of the year in Thailand, though we take Summers in the U.S. my goal is to be able to take a few three-week vacations around Asia every year. I really like Japan, looking forward to New Zealand. My daughter is in school in Chiang Mai, so this is where our home is for now.
PM: What other things keep you busy apart from your work in Shaxi?
CB: Visioneering (planning the long future), meditation, fitness, working on improving current business for other projects, such as Yangshuo, family life, trying new beers.
PM: What books are you reading at the moment? Favorite authors? How much of your reading is for pleasure?
CB: I’m reading Kevin Kelly, Tim Ferris, Seth Godin, Malcolm Gladwell. Favorite author is Alan Watts.
PM: If a complete stranger asks you, what do you do for a living, how do you respond?
CB: “As little as possible.”
PM: Chris, thanks so much for your time. It’s been a real pleasure!