Written by Flora Wang
Today, China continued to observe the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, so the Stanford group spent the day at and around the Great Wall. We set out early, 7:30am, for a 2+ hour trip to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. Going to Mutianyu, I did not expect there to be so few people, especially on a holiday. Last week, I went to the Badaling section of the Great Wall with my mom and brother on a weekday, and there were at least ten times as many people. The crowds at both sections speak to the accessibility of the sections. My family and I were able to take a train to Badaling for only six yuan; whereas, getting to Mutianyu requires driving (personal car, taxi, or bus) and traffic.
At Mutianyu, some of us walked up to the Wall while others took a cable car. We did not spend too much time at the Wall since we were in a time crunch, but we were able to walk up to the tallest part of the section and admire the views and the vastness of the Wall. I enjoyed exploring the watchtowers at the Mutianyu section, especially because the watchtowers at the Badaling section were closed to the public. Everyone (minus Kevin) took the toboggan down. While waiting in line, we had an interesting conversation with a toboggan worker. We told him about ourselves and learned a little about his life as well. He lived in a town by the Great Wall and earned 2000 ¥ (~$300) a month, which we later found out was around the minimum wage in China. He was bilingual- he would yell out safety instructions, that most people ignored while on the toboggan and that were not enforced, in Mandarin and English.
After our adventure at the Great Wall, we went to the Brickhouse, previously a tile factory and currently a hotel/resort in Beigou, voted the “Most Beautiful Village in China” near the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. We ate lunch at the Brickhouse (with house-grown produce) while Jim Spear, the founder, a UC Berekley graduate, and now a permanent resident of China, talked to us about him and the history of the area and his projects. Jim moved to Mutianyu Village after retiring from a corporate job in the city. Jim was received as a rich white American man, and the mayor wanted him to give back to the community. Jim also mentioned that before coming to Mutianyu Village, people have been moving out because of the lack of job opportunities. This call for help led Jim Spears and his partners to launch the Schoolhouse project. Jim leased the land of an old schoolhouse that was owned collectively by the townspeople. He turned the schoolhouse into a crafts shop and later added a restaurant in time for the 2008 Olympics. The government then seized the land, schoolhouse, and restaurant despite the success and attention. Jim and his partners then created the Brickhouse in Beigou.
Jim also has other smaller scale projects, designing and building houses for relatively wealthy clients. After lunch, he showed us around the village and some of the houses he has built and is currently building. When designing buildings, Jim has to consider his clients’ wishes, but Jim often builds upon existing abandoned and old buildings. A lot of these houses he has built in the surrounding villages are used as rental homes under the Brickhouse organization.
On the van ride back to our hotel, we had an interesting discussion on our thoughts of Brickhouse and Jim’s other projects. Many people had mixed feelings about our experience in Beiguo. I think we generally all appreciated that Jim has done smaller scale projects here and is trying to be sensitive to the community and its needs. Jim has hired many local villagers as an effort to be more sustainable. On the other hand, we had some qualms about what we have learned. Lena mentioned feeling “ethical tension” throughout the afternoon. We discussed different definitions of sustainability (social vs. economic sustainability). When we found out that one of Jim’s clients already had seven other houses, there was some uneasiness among the group. Terence mentioned ultimately Jim runs a business, and to run a business, he must make money. We also recognize the good that Jim has done in this community and thank him for taking the time to tell us about his projects.
Also, thanks to Shelby for putting masks on us!