et’s approach to Sa Yang, the foreign villager at the foot of the Great Wall.
It is Mutianyu Village of Huairou 70 kilometers away from Beijing. Behind me is the rolling Great Wall at Mutianyu. This is a village surrounded by the Great Wall. The village is only 8 square kilometers with about 200 villagers.
More than ten years ago, here came a foreigner. This ancient village has changed a lot due to his coming.
Today we are going to meet this villager of the Great Wall from America.
“My family name is Sa, Sa is from ‘Lhasa’ and also from ‘Pusa'(Bodhisattva). My given name is Yang, Yang is from Yangguizi(foreigner), I’m from America.”
“Hello, Tang Liang! Hello, Sa Yang!”
“Come in, it’s cold outside.”
“This is your home? So nice!”
Sa Yang’s house looks similar to common farm house of China. but after coming into it, it surprises us a lot. Without changing the original structure of the house, Sa Yang added a lot of exquisite designs.
“I see in your house, there are various small windows everywhere，is this created by yourself?”
“Yes, I especially like small windows. through which the sunlight comes in. Then it’s tantamount to a picture I have drawn.”
Today in Sa Yang’s house, Chinese elements handled skillfully can be seen everywhere. He reformed the original ordinary house. During transformation, he retained all original beams and stone walls. but the application of color and lighting reflects the lifestyle of the West. This Chinese and Western design is praised by each visitor. but originally Sa Yang didn’t major in design and architecture and even knew nothing about China.
“When you were young, did you know China?”
“Not at all.”
“Then later, how did you learn about China?”
“Later I went to university, the first class was a lesson about politics. Our professor was a specialist of China issues.”
“Then at that time how did he describe China to you?”
“He said China was a great country with a history of several thousand years and its Communist Party stood up as the leading party. Since then, I started to be interested in it.”
Sa Yang was born in a small town in California, America. When he was 17, Sa Yang was admitted to University of California. Berkeley in America. In the first political lesson of the university, the instructor introduced the long history and splendid culture in China. Since then, Sa Yang began to be curious about and longing for the distant and unfamiliar country. At that time, Sa Yang met arrived in America to study Tang Liang from Beijing. They fell in love, got married and had a daughter. They enjoyed the happy family life just like most people. However, in Sa Yang’s heart, his desire for China increased day by day. Finally one day, he thought the opportunity came,
“As at that time, China’s opening policy was just implemented, I thought going to China was a good opportunity. Therefore, I told Tang Liang before finishing my Ph.D. I would move to China to get a job.”
“When you told Tang Liang this decision, what’s her reaction?”
“What reaction did she have? She said, Sa Yang, you are kidding, you know how difficult it is for me to come to America. I have been here for only 6 years. What do you want me to do if I go back?”
In the middle 1970s, China’s gate remained shut, so studying abroad was unthinkable for ordinary people. After the foundation of New China, Tang Liang was the first batch of students studying abroad, so you can imagine how difficult it was. After hard working, she eventually had a stable job and a happy family, but at that time, Sa Yang decided to develop in China and to give up all the hard-won things in America. Tang Liang momentarily felt difficult to accept that.
“I was shocked, I did not think that he would make such a decision. I also did not know whether I could find a job immediately and in future, our family could be developed to what extent. I didn’t consider these. He just told me he decided and asked me to go with him.”
Though Tang Liang did want to lose the superior life in America, she did not want to lose her family she managed painstakingly. After repeatedly weighing, Tang Liang respected, In this way, Sa Yang brought his wife who just realized her America dream and their a few-month-old child to China with simply packed clothes and several cases of books and several cases of books and began his journey of seeking dreams in China.
“When getting off the plane in China what did you see? Compared with China you imagined before were they the same?”
“When we were in America， we felt that China was like an army, in which everybody got up in the morning, and followed the rules like robots. Then when I got off the plane, I immediately felt that China was a very active country.”
In the 1980s, not many foreigners came to China to find jobs. At that time, China just implemented its reform and opening up policy so it was in great need of international talents. Sa Yang and Tang Liang took advantages of knowing America well and being able to communicate in Chinese. They soon found a job in an America listed company in Beijing. As senior executives, they had good salaries and even hired their own driver and housekeeper, they lived a prosperous and stable life. They lived like this for 10 years, but in 1996, an encounter at the Great Wall at Mutianyu, broke the path of Sa Yang’s life again.
“How did you attach to Mutianyu？”
“One day in Mutianyu, after I walked down, I bumped into a local farmer who set a stall to sell souvenirs and sleeveless undershirts. He chatted with me, I said that I admired him in such a beautiful place at the foot of the Great Wall, I dreamed to live there, but I thought as a foreigner I had little possibility. He accidentally said that he would help me to find a house.”
Sa Yang did not realize that the encounter would completely change his life. The farmer from Mutianyu Village called Li Fengquan, really helped him find a house, Sa Yang loved this small farm house at first sight.
“You have many dogs, are there any dogs adopted from the village?”
“There are two.”
In this way, Sa Yang rented this house and he has rented it for 30 years. He usually worked in the city and came to home at Mutianyu at weekends and vacations for leisure, spending holidays and entertaining friends. Under Sa Yang’s constantly transformation, the house was getting clean and warm. It stands to reason that Sa Yang finally fulfilled his dream, so he should be satisfied. However, Sa Yang had a bolder idea then.
“And one day, Sa Yang came home and told me he made a decision. I had already used to listening to his decision. Then I asked what the decision was？”
“I said let’s move to Mutianyu. She said she didn’t want to move to Mutianyu, because she was a city girl”
“I said you were joking, ahh, I said I would not live in Mutianyu.”
“She might divorce me. At that time I was very busy, I went on business trips for successive years, it took sixty to seventy percent of the time. I had meetings from day to night, and I had international calls at night, I wanted to stop there and didn’t want to do it anymore. Then I explained to Tang Liang, I can’t adhere to this kind of life.”
Facing with the anxiety of her husband, Tang Liang ached for him, after careful consideration, just like ten years ago, moving from America to Beijing, Tang Liang respected her husband’s choice again. She gave up high-paid job with Sa Yang and formally moved to Mutianyu to settle down. At the age of nearly 50, they started their villagers’ life at the foot of the Great Wall. A completely different life experience began since then. However, on the first day they moved in they met troubles.
“When they furnished in the first afternoon and just relieved for a while at home, then someone knocked the door Rat-tat Rat-tat, the door of the house was knocked so, we didn’t know what’s up. Tang Liang went to open the door, a villager asked Tang Liang whether it was our car, Tang Liang said it was, he said, you can’t park the car there, Tang Liang said，this is our own doorway, why can’t we park the car here? Then he said, maybe you don’t know that the tree is mine, your car has rolled the root, and affected the yiel， so you can’t park the car here. Then Tang Liang talked to him again and again, like quarreling with him, and the result was we paid him 90 yuan a year, then there’s no problem. At that time I asked Tang Liang how could he bully us.”
Being the newcomers, Sa Yang and Tang Liang unpleasantly dealt with their neighbors, this was unexpected. Until then, they just realized that to regard Mutianyu as their real home, they still needed to do many things. Then Sa Yang began to find out ways positively to between villagers and themselves.
“On a Saturday night, several villagers finished dinner and came to drink with me. They were willing to try my wine, so I found that drinking together would make us relaxed, and communicate well, I could ask them many question, and they could also ask me questions. We gradually learned some specific customs, and found many of their ideas, thoughtful, they didn’t direct towards me because I was a foreigner. Every tree was divided to every villager, and they relied on the fruit tree. For him, if the yield decreased, he would have trouble.”
No discord no concord, Sa Yang and Tang Liang gradually understood villagers, and villagers also gradually found that the straightforward and humorous foreigner was not only well-informed, but also warm-hearted, if they had some troubles, they would naturally remind of Sa Yang.
“When cucumbers were ripe in spring, they picked some, and came to my door, saying, hey，have a taste. As for neighbors and villagers, I got along well with, sometimes if they had marriages or funerals, they would invite us and we would attend.”
Being a family with villagers, Sa Yang felt that the life in the village at the foot of the Great Wall became more and more comfortables. When Sa Yang enjoyed the peaceful and satisfying life, suddenly one day, the party secretary of Mutianyu Village found Sa Yang, and put forward a request. This request let Sa Yang who was over 50 years old face with the unprecedented challenge once again.
It is Xiaoyuan Restaurant at Mutianyu at the foot of the Great Wall. Now the glass art studio and Xiaoyuan Restaurant here have become places every visitor at home or abroad will visit when visiting the Great Wall. However, just a few years ago, Xiaoyuan Restaurant was an abandoned school. Right here, Sa Yang began the first business trip in his life.
“It seems you have been living the kind of semi-retirement life you want, why did you start a business again?”
“It’s because the Party branch secretary mobilized me, he reminded me to play a role in the village. He said you might not have noticed aging of the population in the village, the young didn’t find good jobs, so they moved away. This village has a history of 500 years, but I don’t know how can we continue to the next generation.”
It turned out that the village secretary hoped Sa Yang could make use of the experience of the senior executive to solve the practical problem of Mutianyu Village, and to protect this ancient village from declining because of the young’s leave. Sa Yang understood this request was full of trust and expectation of villagers. Then, how to revive this 500-years-old village continue its prosperity? Sa Yang lost in thought.
“To enable rural areas to survive in the 21st century, we have to make effort to improve the living standards. America faces this problem as China does, in America mountainous areas, it’s very difficult to keep people there, the young all leave there, therefore, business activities, companies, and enterprises must be equipped.”
However, how to establish enterprises at the foot of the Great Wall and where to establish enterprises? A series of problems turned up in front of Sa Yang of starting a business.
“What does the original school looks like?”
“As it’s an abandoned primary school, closed in the early 1990s, when we thought about leasing it had been like an unusable and worn-out place without a tree and paved floor, and the glass was broken. The road at that time was not like this, this was paved by us later.”
After careful preparation, Sa Yang started his first business project at Mutianyu Village in 2006. he reformed this abandoned school into a glass art studio. Tourists could not only appreciate the working process of glass but also buy delicate glass crafts. Gradually, there were more and more admiring guests. However, Sa Yang found most tourists to the Great Wall were foreigners, so he reformed two classrooms into a Western restaurant. Unexpectedly, it suddenly attracted more guests from all over the world.
“Oh, these paintings are so cute.”
“Our guests drew them, we put this on every table, everyone drew it when waiting for dishes.”
“I worship the Great Wall of China, this should be a work of a pupil. Look at this, there are five people in my family, dad, mom, elder brother, younger brother, and I. That is so lovely.”
“You can see this one is painted by a person from California and this one is painted by a person from Connecticut, America.”
Xiaoyuan Restaurant collected guests from far and near. Many people were greatly interested in the plain and primitive rural culture, more friends even asked Sa Yang whether they could live here. Therefore, Sa Yang started helping villagers to reform the unused houses. To keep the houses’ original appearances and meet the taste of foreign tourists, Sa Yang had racked his brain.
“When I was going to bed at night, I thought in the darkness about the perspective. What will the outdoor science look like if I design a window here? I would think about it and drew a draft.”
In this way, after Sa Yang’s reformation, house villagers were going to abandon have been vitalized. There are more and more foreigners in the village, it has become a real international village. And the Chinese and Western design from Sa Yang has become the focus of reports of Chinese and foreign media. In 2008, after Xiaoyuan Restaurant’s business was gradually stabilized, Sa Yang came up with a new idea, he was going to build a hotel to let more people live at the foot of the Great Wall like him. Therefore, he leased this abandoned tile factory, after his reformation, the dilapidated old tile factory suddenly became an artistic village resort hotel named Brick Yard.
Now the abandoned tile factory has gotten rid of the old appearance, those broken tiles have become modern decorations after Sa Yang’s processing, the perfect combination of Chinese architecture and Western art has gained a high reputation for Brick Yard, and the behavior of Sa Yang trying to keep the original appearance of village has gained widely support and respect.
“Villagers of surrounding communities also came and help me, contractors, suppliers, members, government agencies and party agencies helped me, so if I succeeded, I must take all their benefits into consideration.”
At the beginning of building the hotel, Sa Yang’s friends suggested he should hire staffs from other places, but Sa Yang thought the villagers had the special feelings to their home, so they could do this job better. Therefore, in Sa Yang’s every project, he not only hired the local village but also gave them plenty of space to create. Village Li Haixin followed Sa Yang all along from staring the business and now he has been one of the constructors. Sa Yang hired these workers to do reformation work for the tile factory, and he didn’t want to interfere them too much how to do it, he said simply, you should do as you like and just do it if you think it is beautiful. Sa Yang’s Xiaoyuan Restaurant and Brick Yard provide Villagers in Mutianyu Village many employment opportunities, even those people in country town come and work here. What’s more, Sa Yang not only provides them opportunities to do grass-roots work but also offers training to enable them to become managers of enterprises. With efforts of Sa Yang, the original idea came true step by step, with reinvestment of the profits and joining of many partners. Sa Yang has invested about one hundred million yuan in Mutianyu Village. Now the company expands gradually, and the restaurant and hotel boom is popular. The road has been reconstructed, and every family has used classified rubbish dustbin. After training, the vulgar women wear working uniforms and the young working in other places come back to serve as cooks and architects. The return of the young restores the validity of this old village.
“Since Sa Yang came here, everything has changed, for example, environment. In Double Ninth Festival, every village over the age of 70 can get 300 yuan, Sa Yang. Indeed has brought us good things since he came to our village.”
“Do you feel he is like your family member?”
“We are family.”
Sa Yang has leased here for 3 years, since 3 years ago, he has set about a new project and started planning Xiaoyuan Agricultural Company. He has leased 24 mu of orchard in Tianxianyu Village, this is a big step in sustainable development as well as his goal for future development.
“What is the concept of sustainable development in your mind?”
“We firstly completed the materialization of sustainable development from the perspective of how to protect the local communities. From the perspective of environmental protection that people gather in downtown might not good for the healthy development of the earth, so we should support the survival of the rural areas.”
From starting the business, Sa Yang has adhered to the view of sustainable development, from the reformation of the abandoned school into Xiaoyuan Restaurant to reformation of the tile factory into the hotel, and the ongoing development of Xiaoyu8an Agriculture Company, Sa Yang always adheres to this principle.
“When I reform farmers’ houses in rural areas, I consider several factors, environment protection space, sunlight, and the outside scene. My goal is to try my best to keep this village survive.”
Sa Yang adheres to the sustainable development which develops Mutianyu’s travel economy and retains the village’s primary life state, it enables this 500-years-old village to stay still and continue. Now, Sa Yang makes his effort to build his Xiaoyuan Agriculture Company and continues the sustainable development of agriculture. While three years have passed, the lease approval formalities of the orchard have not done yet, the project is not able to start，which makes Sa Yang very worried.
“When you face these difficulties and are confused, have you ever thought of giving up and stopping?”
“Ahh, no one has asked me this question, I think this question is very good, I want to give up almost every day if I meet difficulties about this and that, I will say, forget it, I quit. However, I won’t.”
Although the lease approval formalities are still being handled, Sa Yang never gives up. Today, he invites the village secretary of Mutianyu Village to the orchard again, hoping to facilitate the project as soon as possible.
“There are a lot of government departments involved in approving this project, Now I think most of the processes have been done, so if everything goes well, we can start it in next year’s spring. Therefore, this is life, sometimes we meet problems, sometimes we get troubles and sometimes we are interrupted, but we need the perseverance to fight against them, we have to persevere in it. Chairman Mao had a saying, where there is a will, there is a way. If this project cannot be done by myself, I have my daughter to do it, my next generation can continue to do the work.”
The Christmas Day of 2012 was the 28th Christmas Day Sa Yang spent in China. The organizers of this year’s Christmas party were Sa Yang’s two daughters. Usually, the girls work and live in Beijing downtown, every weekend and vacation they will come over. The most delightful thing to Sa Yang is that the elder daughter has made up decision to help him and continue this meaningful career.
“I’m very connected to China, besides, I believed China would develop very well, now it seems that I’m right. I know I’m a foreigner, but as long as China welcome me, I will always live here.”