The China Experience

The story of my 10-year adventure designing an American West themed vacation community north of Beijing.

“Allison, you’re just streetwise enough to handle it.”

That’s why, explains the president of this Seattle-based property management company, he’s chosen me for the project of a lifetime: To design an American-style community of villas in a rural area north of Beijing near the Great Wall of China.

I’ve never been to China. He’s been several times. His comment makes me wary, but his offer has me very intrigued.

Beijing is growing, and the city presents a huge opportunity to sell wealthier citizens on the idea of buying vacation homes, just like their American counterparts own. The development company has been there setting it up for a year. The model homes are underway and it’s time for a designer’s input. I speak with the Chinese rep from the company, Andy, who describes the project like this: “We are building the most beautiful vacation homes in China, surrounded by wild animals, rivers, lakes and streams.”

I’m the first subcontractor sent over to follow up with the lead developer. I fly to Beijing, accompanied by, Christine, a sweet woman in her late 20s (same age as my daughter) who works for the Seattle company. This is also her first trip to China.

We arrive at night, exhausted, and stay in a hotel on the outskirts of the city. The next morning, we’re up early to prepare for our meeting with Andy, the Chinese rep. We’ve heard that Andy is into appearances, he values attractive looking people, and we should dress smartly for our prospective client. I’m wearing the most expensive suit and shoes I’ve ever bought. With my blue eyes and blond hair, I know I meet Andy’s idea of the sophisticated American woman. I’ve also got a photo portfolio of beautiful estates to show him. He’s so excited by the images he “hires” me on the spot. If only it were that easy!

Unlike most of his associates, Andy speaks enough English to communicate with us. He turns out to be one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met, with quirky, amusing habits (blurting out random words “Unbalibabble! Oh my god! Perfect!”). Andy claims to know everything about China and assures me that I am in good hands.

Rolling Hills Near the Great Wall of China

The Journey to The Site

After breakfast, Andy brings us to a waiting van, already filled with several members of the Chinese development team. We have no idea the itinerary and so jet- lagged, dehydrated, and unsteady in our new surroundings—we climb in for the journey to the development site.

On the way I am struck by the strangeness of the city. The night before, everything seemed foggy, yet during the daylight, the fog never seems to lift. There is so much construction, incomplete sidewalks, nothing finished. The air is so filled with dust and smoke, it’s hard to distinguish buildings. It feels like a bomb has gone off, like something bad has happened. But it hasn’t. It’s just another day in Beijing.

About 40 miles north of the city, we come to the first section of the Great Wall, where the landscape begins to feel rural. As we climb in elevation, the terrain becomes forested, the skies clearer.  It reminds me of the high desert landscape in Central Oregon.

We drive on for hours, packed in the van with our mostly quiet Chinese clients and one English-speaking interpreter, Maggie. All the way Christine and I are drinking water to alleviate dehydration and exhaustion, and sure enough I need to pee.

I ask Maggie if we can visit a bathroom and she offers to stop at an old palace that had once housed an emperor or someone important. I step into the crumbling structure, wondering where the ladies room might be. My hosts seem a little embarrassed, but urge me on. I find the “bathroom” easily by following the stench. The toilet is merely a hole amid the broken tiles. Thank goodness I have a few tissues in my purse. (I’d been warned: bring TP and crackers when traveling to China!) So there I am standing/squatting, trying to figure out how to accomplish this feat without splattering my expensive Anne Klein shoes and amazing BCBG suit! As I look into the hole (why did I do that?) I see maggots squirming about. And that’s when I understand the comment from my property manager back in Seattle. I have to giggle. Heck yea, I’m streetwise enough to handle it!

Finally we arrive at the site where they present three “villas” under construction. They seem a montage of Americana, a strange conglomeration of architectural styles. Sort of lodge meets Little House on the Prairie. As for the surroundings, there are no wild animals, maybe a few goats. It’s pretty, but not lush. It sure doesn’t compare to the preserved, rich environment of America’s wild places.

Ghan Bay

We sit down in the restaurant, and my first thought is: Why does this place smell like a bathroom? I worry about germs, but knowing the local recipes will be spicy, and cooked at high heat, I figured that should kill the worst of it. Also, an Asian importer friend had advised not to eat the chicken. Good thing I love vegetables.

We have a large table in the center of the room. Throughout the meal, our hosts smoke cigarettes and speak among themselves. Assorted dishes come out and I really enjoy the spicy vegetables offered.

The beer is good, too. “Ghan bay” is the Chinese expression for “cheers” and our hosts expect bottoms up when they call it out. This happens several times during our two-hour lunch. Thankfully the glasses are small, but I do appreciate the numbing effect.

The Plan

Finally we’re back at the hotel for some much needed sleep, and then the next five days are a blur of meetings. We go in circles discussing matters related to the design. It occurs to me they are looking for a name and theme for the resort. So I describe the most posh resort areas in America: Martha’s Vineyard, Vail, The Hamptons, Sun Valley, Jackson Hole. Andy, fascinated with Western Americana latches on to that last one, and Jackson Hole is our resort.

Now it’s time to get down to details. For example, what size? With their one-child rule, Chinese families don’t need huge homes so we keep them modest (by American standards) at 1500 to 2000 square feet. Throughout our planning, they ask “What does the American kitchen/bathroom/master suite look like?” I suggest they include some design features familiar to Chinese culture but no, they are fascinated with American homes, all things American.

Another issue: do we remodel the homes they’ve begun to build, or start from scratch? This is quickly resolved as they consider each detail, such as the roof, and ask, “Is that a roof you’d see in America?” I show them a picture to prove otherwise. The same thing happens for windows. And siding. Finally they catch on and say, “Should we just start over?” YES!

The question of an architect comes up. I suggest buying stock plans from an American firm, and we modify them for the lot and the layout and have them translated into Chinese. As for new materials (shake siding, windows, etc.), the builders would need to know how to use them and I’d have to figure out where to source them. I look locally at design centers to see what ‘s available. It feels like stepping into 1972. Plumbing, for example, I can get a Kohler toilet but beyond that am shocked by the lack of materials appropriate to a resort community. It seems to me that in a world where everything is “Made in China” you should find anything in China! I end up telling them specifically what we’ll need, and have them search their vast country to find it.


The final hurdle is my contract. I must decide what to charge, and have them buy off on it. Many nights I go back to my room, unable to sleep, wondering what to do. I contact my importer friend, who encourages me to stick to my guns. After so much investment in time and energy, I know I should be paid well for my efforts and hope they accept my offer. I also hope I can stomach the negotiations.

As the meetings continue, we go over the same questions again and again. It’s much discussion, in their language only. I wonder how I can summon the patience. I think of my husband, who would never sit through meetings like this. And I think of every shit storm I’ve ever been through, knowing it has all prepared me for this, and the tremendous tolerance and patience my current situation requires.

After a point, I wonder if it’s all just smoke and mirrors. Are they planning to steal my concepts and run with them? At least I’m smart enough to never leave them with my portfolio of ideas and images, knowing they will try to do the project without my services if they can.

Then finally, I’m told plans and details are set and Christine and I are to leave the next day. To celebrate, they want to treat us to Beijing duck. We go to an older, traditional restaurant, decorated in velvet and damask. It’s an enormous dining room, and the only table is our group—a grand party of 40 guests, only 4 or 5 of whom I know are directly involved in the project.

Christine and I are seated near Andy and the Chinese project manager, Mr. Gow. The food is passed, the beers are served and it’s “ghan bay” cheers all around. I’m still in disbelief over all that’s transpired. Halfway through the meal, Andy writes on a napkin, passes it to me, and says, “On these three points here, I want you to tell me what you will do for the price.”

I look at him and say, “Andy, I would love to tell you what I would do on those three points but I can’t read Chinese.”

He laughs, realizing he’s confused his languages. So he rewrites in English, and it’s basically everything I spelled out in my contract. He tells Mr. Gow what this means.

I’ll never forget the reaction of Mr. Gow, a very gentle, kind man with a happy face and smiling eyes. All of a sudden, he raises his glass and makes a toast. The only word I understand is “Allison.” Andy translates, explaining that Mr. Gow believes in my contract, is confident I’ll do a beautiful job, and is excited to start the project.

“What does this mean, Andy?” I ask.

“You got the job, Allison! They will be sending the money to America tomorrow.”