Dispatch

China’s Wild West

China’s Wild West

On a chilly morning in Hebei province, 20 miles north of the Great Wall of China, Jiang Xiaotian wandered out onto his patio overlooking a town that bears a more than passing resemblance to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. With its pitched roof, stone chimney and wooden exterior, his house looked just like every other in his neighborhood — evoking the American Wild West he knows from the movies.

Jiang, a Hong Kong corporate executive, has never been to the United States, and before buying his weekend home, he had no particular affection for cowboy culture or American life. But somewhere — over dozens of weekends spent at a resort town that’s part suburbia, part spaghetti Western film set — curiosity got the better of him. He began reading American novels and immersed himself in John Wayne films. Now, the interior of his vacation home is sprinkled with all-American kitsch — there’s a Zippo lighter collection, a mounted deer head, a black airsoft gun with a leather holster from Texas. The walls are hung with a framed copy of the Declaration of Independence and a Civil War-era map. On his mantle sits an embroidered hanging that reads, in red, white and blue, "God Bless the U.S.A."

"Actually, I don’t really have any strong feelings toward the U.S.," Jiang explained as we sat on suede-upholstered chairs in his living room. "But there is something about the cowboy culture, and being near the mountains here, that gives you a feeling of total freedom."

A two-hour drive north of Beijing’s oppressive smog and colorless high-rises, the town provides a surreal sense of escape. Jackson Hole, whose Chinese name literally translates to "Hometown U.S.A.," now consists of about 900 single-family homes with working fireplaces, wooden facades and landscaped footpaths. Still under construction is a primarily commercial section dubbed Teton Village, which will include a stage for cowboy stunt shows, a gold-panning area for children, and even a church. The resort’s website shows images of all three, set to a lively banjo soundtrack.

China’s wealthy urbanites have long flocked to tropical resort communities in seaside cities for short-term stays, but ownership of weekend homes in the countryside is a new phenomenon spurred by the explosive growth of the upper class. Fifteen percent of Chinese urban households owned two or more homes in 2007, according to research by Huang Youqin, a professor at the University of Albany, and that number continues to grow. Many of those homes are purchased purely as investments in a hot housing market, but researchers say country vacation homes make up a growing percentage, though themed resort towns are relatively rare.

It’s a surprising phenomenon in a population that is more likely to associate the countryside with hard agrarian labor than a peaceful retreat to nature. But many vacation homeowners are part of an older upper class that seeks a respite from the growing crowding and pollution in cities, Jackson Hole’s developers told me. Many have traveled or lived abroad and have brought back Western ideas about vacation and leisure.

Zhang Siqiang, a manager at the Chinese real estate company that planned the resort, told me that Jackson Hole’s appeal lies beyond the cowboys and Indians motif — its organized activities, he said, tap into urbanites’ desires for community and foreign travel. The week before I met him, he helped put together a Halloween celebration. Using information culled from an Internet search, he explained the holiday’s ghoulish origins to homeowners. Dressed in costume, children went trick-or-treating around neighborhoods with names like Moose Creek and Aspen Land. Zhang, who posted the Halloween pictures on his blog, promised authentic Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations as well.

The resort’s formula seems to be working. Home prices at Jackson Hole have more than doubled since 2007, its second year of operation, when houses were selling for an average of 2 million RMB, or about $315,000. Now one of the "American villas" will set a buyer back nearly $851,000. Even so, buyers are requesting homes faster than the company can build them. The homeowners are mostly older businesspeople, lawyers, government officials and intellectuals who drive out on weekends, Zhang said, along with a section of retirees who have permanently relocated there.

The idea to create a Jackson Hole in China was the unlikely brainchild of Allison Smith, a Portland-based interior designer. A contact at Seattle-based Pinnacle Realty Management asked Smith to travel to China to work on a new project with its Chinese partner. Smith flew to Beijing, expecting to furnish and decorate tropical villas. Instead, her new Chinese colleagues drove her to a barren, dusty landscape, where shells of homes were being constructed, and asked her to plan an American-style resort community from scratch.

Back at the company’s office in Beijing, the property managers spent hours quizzing Smith on resort living in the United States, searching for a theme that held all the symbolic trappings of Americana. Most of the property managers had never left China and understood resorts through advertisements and magazines. China, where vacationing itself is a relatively new phenomenon, held relatively few precedents. Smith dutifully described the archetypical getaway spots of the American upper class, from Martha’s Vineyard to the Hamptons, and fielded questions on skiing and sunbathing.

After days of meetings, she finally mentioned the words "Jackson Hole," along with the frontier spirit it conjured in her mind. "They lit up immediately," she said. It helped, she guessed, that the word "Jackson" is not particularly hard to pronounce in Chinese.

From that point, Smith served as a kind of American authenticity consultant for everything from the buildings’ architectural plans to the aesthetic of the stone pathways between houses. She came up with names for the houses, like Geronimo and Billy the Kid, and picked out furniture with suede accents. She trawled Portland antique stores for cowhide rugs and whisky barrels, carefully packaging and shipping the goods to Beijing. The toughest part was explaining the nuances of American-style homes to Chinese architects accustomed to building utilitarian apartment buildings. "It was the most challenging thing of my entire career," she said.

At first, Smith wondered about the appeal of such a quintessentially American locale to wealthy Chinese vacationers. Many of the residents I spoke with said they first visited the resort town out of curiosity, but were quickly charmed by its sprawling homes and the developers’ description of cowboy culture and its independent ethos. "Cowboys stand for a simpler way of life and freedom without restraint," said one resident, a retired lawyer. "Those are traditional Chinese values as well, but very difficult to come by in Beijing." Others said Jackson Hole’s stark contrast with urban China provides the best kind of weekend escape — a chance to travel to exotic America without ever having to leave the country.

In 2009, Zhang and five of his colleagues flew to the original Jackson Hole, Wyoming, for the first time. The group rented a van in Jackson Hole and drove to Teton Village, and then north to Yellowstone National Park. But the even while visiting the real American West, Zhang felt as if he’d seen it all before.

"The mountains were very beautiful," Zhang said. "But everything else, well, it was pretty much the same as ours."