American Jim Spear is among the first expats settling in
outskirts, not far from the Great Wall.
While the vast majority of foreigners in China settle in major
metropolises, a growing number of expats are heading for the
hinterlands. The epicenter for this trend in Beijing is Bohai
Township, a northern suburban area where more than 20 foreigners
now lease homes long term. About a dozen of these abodes are
concentrated in the hamlet of Mutianyu, which has become something
of a global village with the influx of internationals.
American Jim Spear was among the first to pioneer this suburban
frontier. It began when he was visiting the nearby Great Wall with
a foreign friend in the early 1990s and struck up conversation with
a T-shirt vendor.
"I think he wanted me to buy a T-shirt; I got a house instead,"
Left and right: A local house is renovated into a mix of the modern
and traditional. Photos by Wang Ru
The man's name was Li Fengquan. Today, he lives three houses
down from Spear and is one of his best friends.
"I told him I envied him for living in such a beautiful spot
with wonderfully clear air and that I had always dreamed of having
a house under the Great Wall of China," Spear says. "He said he
would help me find a house, and he did."
For the former senior vice-president of Chindex International,
the Mutianyu home was at first just a holiday hideaway.
"Eventually, when our kids were out of high school, I quit my job
in the city and moved full time to Mutianyu with my wife Liang
Tang. It was a midlife crisis," Spear says.
The first order of business was renovating the house, which,
Spear says, was "a lot of fun". "Friends liked what I was doing in
Mutianyu and asked me to help them find similar properties and turn
them into year-round getaways."
The partner of China Bound Ltd has helped more than a dozen
foreigners find and fix up a holiday hideaway in the area.
Americans Lily Ng and husband David McIntyre say the house is
perfect for their family, which is now based in Hong Kong. They
plan to add a second child to the family soon as a playmate for
their 3-year-old daughter Rhys, who was adopted from Jiangxi
province in 2005. And their travel schedules often put the husband
and wife in different countries from one another.
However, they usually return to Beijing about once a month for
"This home is our haven and a bit of a root in China," Ng says.
"I am ethnically Chinese; we all love living in China, and this
root is important to our family."
For Julie Upton-Wang, her family's rural refuge provides a place
reminiscent of where she grew up.
"I am a country girl and love living in the countryside," says
the American, who grew up in Shelburne Falls, a small New England
village of 3,000.
Originally, Upton-Wang and her husband Peiming Wang leased a
house in River Garden, about 30 minutes north of downtown Beijing,
to get away from the city. However, what might be the country's
largest exhibition center will soon be constructed nearby.
Upton-Wang believes Mutianyu's national park status would
safeguard it from such development. And she adores her new
"It sits under a majestic crown pine tree that is the pride of
the village, as it has been labeled a 'National Treasure'," she
says. "The open patio and flower garden across from the house was
actually the village temple before the 'cultural revolution'
(1966-76). We have been told that these two things give the house
phenomenal feng shui."
Like most homes snapped up by foreigners, the place was
renovated into a mix of the modern and traditional.
"Mere preservation is sterile; we look for living houses in
living villages," Spear says.
Upton-Wang says they found a beautiful balance between
preservation and renovation. "We kept the original kang (heatable
brick or adobe bed common in North China) in my son's bedroom,
where he intends to invite all his friends for overnights,"
Upton-Wang says. "My husband loves to grill and designed a
teppanyaki table for the kitchen."
Many of the villagers have taken inspiration from what they've
seen their foreign friends doing and are upgrading their own
"In my opinion, that is what improving rural lives and the
urbanization of villages is all about," Spear says.
But the impact of these foreigners' presence in the village goes
beyond home decoration, says Upton-Wang, who became Spear's partner
in a local restaurant and blown-glass retailer known as the
"Some villagers have started their own businesses and have
increased their business acumen with the use of computers and excel
spreadsheets," she explains.
"They see opportunities above and beyond selling souvenirs on
the Great Wall. There is an increased awareness about how to
develop the living standard but maintain the essence of the
This is something Paul Ranjard, of France, says he has noticed
since he acquired his country home.
"Mutianyu has rapidly changed for the better," says the
63-year-old, who has lived in China for more than a decade. "The
authorities have engaged in lots of environmental improvements, and
the tourism becomes more diversified and is significantly
Spear says this is something the villagers appreciate about
their foreign neighbors.
"We didn't start with a big philosophy of sustainable tourism,
but we've evolved some pretty specific ideas on hiring and training
local people, helping local people start their own businesses,
creating craftworks, using existing footprints, following sound
business principles, and encouraging visitors to stay longer and
spend more money."
He explains the influx of foreigners has helped the villagers,
many of whom considered leaving for the city, appreciate where they
"The peasants themselves want to escape from that rough life,
even if they don't want to leave their ancestral homes; I think you
can have a rustic yet comfortable living experience in the village,
and the people I'm helping obviously feel the same way."
At the same time, many of the foreigners with homes in Mutianyu
say they have learned a lot from their time among the
"A village is a different world, and I guess the gap between
city people and country people is a reality in all countries,
including France," says Ranjard, who has lived in China for more
than a decade. "The gap is, of course, more obvious in China, with
cultural and economic differences being more visible."
Upton-Wang says this is one of the reasons she enjoys bringing
foreign friends to the village.
She recalls one visiting group of women who asked about
"They had never really met anyone who had experienced this," she
says. "One elderly Chinese woman laughed when asked if she was
carried in a fancy palanquin: 'He was too cheap; I got to be
carried home to his family by a donkey'," the woman told them.
Over the past two years, Upton-Wang has spearheaded the
establishment of a sister village relationship between Shelburne
Falls and Mutianyu, which was the first between China and the
"Frankly, (the villages are) not that different," Upton-Wang
says. "People in my hometown are incredibly sincere, proud of their
village, welcoming hosts to those who choose to visit and yet
charmingly stubborn in their own set ways. I find the same in
(China Daily by Erik Nilsson February 4, 2008)