Jim Spear at The Schoolhouse and some of his projects. Photos: Matthew Jukes
It's just a bend in the road, another quiet township with not much to offer. But if you ever wanted to live there it would cost you more than buying a place in downtown Beijing. Most renowned for the Great Wall, just a kilometer away, Mutianyu, and the surrounding townships are now the paradigm for China's rural areas looking for wealth and investment.
The success is mostly down to former business aficionado Jim Spear, now most notably of The Schoolhouse fame, who came to China 25 years ago to help set up some big US companies in the country. Today however, he's changed tack from the cut and thrust of enterprise…almost.
"My real love is houses," he says jovially. "When I started doing houses, I became completely wrapped up in my own little world."
The tale of how Spear started to create the prototype of the perfect sustainable village around Mutianyu has become something of a myth around Beijing. A casual remark to a hawker on the Great Wall ended with him owning a house. It sounds too good to be true, but according to Spear, it's not an exaggeration, and is one of two major events affecting his life, the first meeting his wife Liang Tang.
"You never know when lightning will strike," he says. "But this guy, [the hawker] was another kind of lightning, one out of 1.3 billion!"
As one of the old guard, Spear had started studying Chinese back in the 1970s, with a premonition of where the world was going to be in the future.
"When I was really studying the language, all the teachers at the time had run away from the Communists in 1949," he reminisces. "The US and China were already having a lot of mutual exchanges, but I'd never even had a spring roll before coming here."
Spear first came to China working for a consulting company, and was responsible for the entry of Sun Microsystems into the country, selling technology to the emerging power, as well as the rise of ASC fine wines and the first GPS in China. He later worked with L'Oreal on branding, something he attributes to the success of The Schoolhouse, but it was retiring to Mutianyu which launched his new life.
"I guess it was a midlife crisis," says Spear. "Quite a lot of people in business want to run away and escape everything. I didn't have much money, but I'm doing what I love."
The first house, which he built for himself and his family, was one of many to come in Mutianyu. The houses look like quaint peasant style farmhouse from the outside, but inside look every bit as appealing as a swish American condo. It wasn't long before Spear's long-term group of expat friends in Beijing started to notice the desirable property and wanted to get in on the act. Most noticeably, Spear's business partners in The Schoolhouse Julie Upton Wang and her husband Wang Peiming. It's a trend that continues to bring in the business, even now.
Many of the houses in the village have been expanded and rebuilt, but each retains the original style, and even craftsmanship that gives them a unique, country feel. The vaulted roofs and slate tiles have been kept, and extensions and additions take on the same aesthetics as their older predecessors and don't look out of place even with the modern facilities, American workbenches and furniture. Even the newer, thinner glass annexes, which offer views of the surrounding countryside, are up to date with heating and air conditioning equipment. But that's still not enough to satisfy Spear.
"Nothing I've done is perfect," he adds. "I believe in aiming for perfection, but in reality there are problems in workmanship and design, even after 30-odd projects."
But the residents and owners of the property he's done have been wildly impressed, not just with the houses, but also with their dealings with the locals of the township.
"I have to say that I learned more in the last three years living in the village than I have in the previous 25 years combined," says John Watkins, a 28-year resident of China and one of the people that Spear has helped to renovate properties for. "In May 2007, I was having lunch at the Schoolhouse Restaurant with my family and saw one of Jim's houses under construction. I was struck by the beauty, simplicity and integration with the village. I decided on the spot I'd like to have a home in the area. We rented four plots of land, which had three houses. We renovated two of the houses and razed one. We added significant additional square meterage to the existing two homes to come up with our new home."
Watkins now uses one of the houses in Yingbeigou village as a weekend getaway, spending time in the city center during the week to deal with work. When it came to the construction of the house, most of the neighbors he'd be sharing with were actually the carpenters, masons and bricklayers of his ideal home.
For many of the tenants, even the relationship with the villagers seems to be cordial, in some instances they have been responsible for the building of homes, or tending of properties. As always there are disputes, not least about the size of land and what can be done with it. But for the houses around Yingbeigou and Mutianyu, it's a learning curve.
"Our home has probably helped 'raise the bar' in the village, but it is Jim, Liang, Julie and Peiming and the Yingbeigou Party Secretary, Wang Quan that have significantly raised living standards and the quality of life in the village," adds Watkins.
Establishing any business, particularly real estate in China has its difficulties, but despite the wide range of enterprises Spear is now running, he maintains one thing.
"I've never done anything I'm ashamed of. I've never bribed anybody, I didn't have to do anything immoral or illegal to get the licenses," adds Spear. His genial relations and policy of employing local people for the local enterprises have won him acclaim and awards from more than a few anthropological bodies.
"The local government looked at what we've done in two villages and combining the two villages together, have invested 35 million yuan into infrastructure, water and road improvements to continue to attract investors there," he says. "We are fortunate to have the good will of the local government. There has been a mutual learning process: If we are a foreigner in the midst of a Chinese community the learning has to go both ways. These people here want the good life and the government wants to deliver it."
Today, an unmodified house in the Mutianyu area, including the neighboring villages has risen in price to about 100,000 yuan, and some of the local residents have happily passed over the usage of their property (in the form of a lease - but they still own the property, while Spear does it up) to Spear while they reap the benefits. Spear ensures that the money goes straight to the families who own the property, and not anywhere else.
"China's a big country and one model is not going to work all the time," says Spear who has to field constant questions about the way he's running the village from other eager townships. To those who ask how he manages to stay successful and get along with the locals, he puts it down to a simple philosophy saying, "You're either part of the problem or part of the solution."
To find out more information, check out http://www.theschoolhouseatmutianyu. com/
The Schoolhouse restaurant at Mutianyu is just one of many ventures initiated by Spear. The restaurant has taken steps to try and grow as much food locally as possible, even getting the local villagers involved. They're particularly proud of growing their own rocket and making use of some of the local pears in their food. As part of their sustainability pledge, they also compost waste and employ local staff.
In addition to the sustainable res¬taurant, he also rents out many of the homes, each with eloquent names on a holiday basis.
Other projects on his list include:
The Brickyard Inn: An expansive former tile factory which has been converted to a guesthouse.
Xiaolumian: A farmhouse which is now a noodle restaurant catering to the nearby guesthouses.