Wen used his connections and pull to interest governmental and industrial groups in the project, and he kept encouraging and funding Lin’s work. Then he dropped dead.
In December 2003, as Town and Talent was setting up Internet projects at more than 50 western schools and as the external structure of the resort was being finished, Sayling Wen suddenly suffered a stroke. He’d always been overweight—standing behind him in line for mandatory fitness training back in their first week of college, Kenny Lin had been startled to see Wen weigh in at 99 kilos, 218 pounds, and strain valiantly but be unable to complete a single pull-up. (Lin, in contrast, was and is a physical-fitness fanatic.) But Wen had seemed vigorous and healthy. He was taken to the hospital and within three days had died, at age 55.
Kenny Lin was devastated for his friend, and he was also in trouble. Wen had given him only $1.2 million of the promised $4 million total for the resort. “I had 400 construction workers ready to start on the interior,” he told me. “No one knew where the other $2.8 million was.” Wen had apparently told no one else in the company about his commitment. Lin stalled the workers, telling them that the hotel might become a school. He feared a riot if they knew that the whole project was at risk. Finally, in March 2004, after three months of Lin’s pressure and pleading, one of Sayling Wen’s brothers agreed to provide the missing $2.8 million.
By the end of 2004 the conference center was done, and officials from around China attended a grand-opening ceremony. “But our original business model was lots of conferences, and Mr. Wen, with his connections, was the central part of that model,” Kenny Lin told me. “Now there is no one to invite the people he could bring.”
Lin told me this in the summer of 2007, as my wife and I walked along the echoing marble floors of the conference center, beneath a larger-than-life-sized portrait of Sayling Wen. We had heard about Yellow Sheep River, which has been well publicized in China, and had gotten in touch with Lin through mutual friends. In the 145-room resort, we appeared to be the only paying guests (the list price is about $100 a night). A full, uniformed staff was on hand—to welcome us to the breakfast buffet, to hand us towels at the pool and exercise room, to greet us when we went in and out the front door.
I have seen deserted resort-palaces before—for example, a ghostly one in the Ilocos area of northern Luzon, which Ferdinand Marcos had built strictly for his daughter’s wedding and which stayed open, empty, for years after he was deposed. But this was different, in retaining an air of hopefulness rather than sheer decadence. And hopeful is how I feel about the several legacies of Sayling Wen’s vision for western China.
The resort itself is of course the most visible of these legacies. When I run my travel agency, I will send every foreign group there I can. By international standards, it is no longer super-luxurious. But for foreigners it is comfortable, which cannot be said of many other places where outsiders are a two-minute walk away from village life. Unlike similar “comfortable” lodgings in places like Haiti or West Africa, it creates little sense of surviving behind barricades in a gilded cage. The hotel and conference center are in the middle of ordinary peasant fields but not besieged by desperate local crowds. As in much of China, including some areas of the west, my wife andI walked through the region chatting with farmers and children in basic Mandarin without causing too much of a stir.