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Boutique hotel doubles as cultural center promoting ethnic group

Yunnan province has long been a magnet for travelers looking for a taste of China"s exotic ethnic cultures. Few, however, have followed their passion as far as Brian Linden.

For a decade, he has devoted himself to promoting the arts, crafts and way of life of the Bai people. Visitors come from far and wide to stay at his Linden Center, an institution he has dedicated to the ethnic group in the small town of Xizhou. Along the way, he has forged links with top universities in both China and his native United States.

"Even though I"m a foreigner, I have always dreamed of finding a way to learn, share and discover Chinese culture," Linden said. "The Linden Center allows me to do just that."

Linden"s road to Xizhou was a long one. It started in 1984 when he was working as a carpet cleaner in his homeland and took up a friend"s invitation to go to China. Once there, he was impressed enough to travel widely. He supported himself by taking several film roles, as well as working as a photographer.

He returned home, but in 2004 he sold his house in the US to bring his wife and two sons back to China and embark on a two-year odyssey across the country.

"My sons needed to study, so hotels and trains became classrooms," Linden said, explaining that the family bought standing tickets when seats were hard to come by.

"We just wanted to show the kids how important it is to follow dreams and make those dreams come true."

From the northwest to the far south, it was Xizhou that captivated the family enough to settle. The town is close to Erhai Lake and Cangshan Mountain, making it a "land of idyllic beauty" in the words of writer Lao She.

Yunnan is home to 26 of China"s 56 ethnic groups. Among them are some 2 million Bai, who live mainly in the western Dali Bai autonomous prefecture.

Xizhou township in Dali is quintessentially Bai, and contains many protected heritage sites. Of particular interest to the Lindens was the "Yang family compound", a building with many distinctive features of Bai architecture. It was built in 1948 and listed under State protection in 2001.

Linden wanted to turn the compound into a boutique hotel. After four years of negotiations with the local government, he was given permission.

The family decided against outside contractors, preferring to renovate the building themselves. "Just the cost of fire safety measures and rewiring exceeded 1 million yuan ($151,000)," Linden said.

During the renovation, he spent half his time at the construction site, and the other half in the village talking to people, making friends and explaining what he was doing.

"If the Linden Center really wants to be part of Xizhou, the support of local people is very important," he said.

Around 100 people were involved in the renovation, and the center now has about 50 staff members. "We could keep the ball rolling with just half of them actually, but I want to help local employment," he said.

In 2008, after almost nine months of work, the Linden Center opened with the structure of the original compound and delicate wood carvings intact. Since then, it has been more a place of cultural exchange than just a hotel. When it opened, Linden invited dozens of foreign painters to work there.

The property today comprises five big courtyards and 16 guests rooms. Besides accommodation and catering, visitors can take part in all kinds of cultural activities, including textile dyeing and cookery lessons.

One of the courtyards has become a place of education, receiving groups from around the world. Linden has hosted students with affiliations to Shanghai"s Fudan University and Yale and Stanford in the US.

"In the Linden Center, I have found my way to learn, share and explore Chinese culture," he said.