Traveling With Chinese Characteristics

05·16·2017/ by Hatty Liu/ The World of Chinese

Founder and CEO Liu Shaojun of China’s boutique hotel chain, The Emperor, says he got into the hospitality business by accident. While looking at a rental property for a business incubator he was intending to develop, he came across a building belonging to Tsinghua University just outside the eastern wall of the Forbidden City. “As soon as I saw that view across the rooflines of the palace, I knew,” he said, and the rest, is history; quite literally.

The Emperor officially opened for business in 2008, but before that it had already become the first Chinese listing to make it onto Design Hotels, the worldwide boutique and luxury hotels network. It was also featured in Forbes, Time magazine, and a BBC documentary series about Beijing’s pre-Olympics hotel boom that also bluntly explained why the business was getting so much attention: “When it comes to hotels there are slim pickings when it comes to gems of an original design.” When the BBC reported on The Emperor again this January, now at a new location off Qianmen Avenue, Marc Brugger, managing director of Beijing’s Rosewood Hotel, is quoted still lambasting the modern international hotel scene as “an ocean of sameness.”

But for Liu, the biggest problem in the stylistics of Chinese hotels is not just their uniformity, but that it’s not even a uniformity of China’s creation. “The concept of the ‘star-level’ hotel comes from the West; we adopted it in the 1980s, and we never did anything to make it our own,” he says. “For examples, having a fitness room, when exercising until you perspire heavily is prohibited in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Or charging for phone calls when it’s the Chinese custom to check in with your family that all is well when you travel to a new place.”

This practice consigned Chinese “star-level” and chain business hotels to play a losing game from the start, says Liu. “We copy, but we have to struggle against the shortcomings of the Chinese service industry and the lousy reputation that Chinese products already have abroad. So we have to ask ourselves, what is it that’s uniquely Chinese that we can do well, that’s worth everyone in the world admiring if we do it well?”

This is a question that has been rising steadily in the nation’s agenda in the past decade, crystalizing from when president Hu Jintao identified the spread of the nation’s “soft power” as a policy priority in a speech in 2007. In the era after China’s global economic and political ascendance  is for granted, the leadership is concerning themselves with shoring up the nation’s cultural influence and projecting its image abroad. With the inauguration of president Xi Jinping’s One Belt One Road initiative in 2013, the focus also became targeted specifically at raising the prestige of the cultural heritage of an overlooked part of the world.

In China’s market for high-end goods and services, consumers are also slowly shifting from decades-long obsession with European design influences from a rediscovery of China’s own ancient heritage as elements of social status. As recent headlines have indicated, some of the highest-priced developments in China are now those styled as aristocratic compounds or Jiangnan literary gardens, and the boutique hotel industry has been adopting phrases like “Chinese-style luxury” and “palace-style design” to indicate a subtler form of high luxury in contrast to the brassy, overtly quirky “petty bourgeois” templates of the past decade. The Emperor itself has even spawned copycats elsewhere in China.

At The Emperor, China’s cultural heritage is reflected in elements like its lobby design, artwork based on ink themes and Chinese characters by artist Bingyi, a meeting room built for tea ceremonies instead of banquet seating, and a check-in procedure where guests first sit down and are served tea in accordance with Chinese guest-receiving etiquette. Read more…

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