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Putting their heart into their home

By Yang Feiyue| China Daily| Updated: August 10, 2021 L M S


Li arranges flowers in the garden.[Photo provided to China Daily]

At the foot of the Tianmu Mountain in Zhejiang province, a homestay is attracting travelers from far and wide. They beat a path to its door by word of mouth and are stunned by its design and ambient environment.

In May, the homestay was one of the two such hostelries in Asia that won architectural gongs at the 2021 German iF Design Awards. The other one was in Japan.

Experts acclaimed the homestay's fine improvements and renovations of the historical building and its combination of Eastern elegance and warmth.

The owners of the award-winning property are a couple in their late 30s who made the decision to return to their hometown two years ago. Li Xiumei quit her job in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, and decided to renovate the old house, which was left to the couple by her husband's grandfather.

Li used to be in charge of a division at a real estate company in Hangzhou, and her husband was a sales director.

"It was basically a mundane situation where he was on business trips a lot and I worked overtime on weekends," Li says.


A restaurant featuring steel structures and glass curtain walls is one of the highlights of Li Xiumei's rural abode. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Yet, the steady situation changed soon after the birth of their son and she quickly realized she wasn't able to spend enough time with him.

It was an accident which gave Li the epiphany she needed. She blacked out after pulling an all-night shift preparing a bid presentation and the doctor's diagnosis was that she had suffered a retinal detachment.

"When I was laying on the operating table, I wondered if I would be blind for the rest of my life," she says.

It made her, metaphorically, "see the light", and she decided to take the plunge.

In 2018, Li quit her job and went back to Dongtianmu village, Lin'an district, Hangzhou. The village is nestled in a forest of bamboo and has been a popular summer getaway among travelers since the 1990s, encouraging locals to open dozens of rural homestays.

Li knew there was an opportunity to take advantage of the idyllic setting and appeal to urban travelers, so, the couple sold their two apartments in Hangzhou and downtown Lin'an and invested them all into renovating their new home.

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The homestay was built on the couple's old rural house.[Photo provided to China Daily]

Speaking about the courage it took them to make the move and not worry about financial loss, Li says it's not just about business.

"We thought it would be great if we could make a profit, but it wouldn't matter if we couldn't, since it would still be our home," Li says.

The rural house is surrounded by a parcel of land nearly 3,000 square meters in size, and the couple found designers Gong Jian and Liu Meng via the internet.

The idea was to upgrade the property for her own family to live in and then use extra space to take in guests.

Gong still remembers the first time he drove into the village one late afternoon.

The cooking smoke was rising from the foot of the mountain, he says.

"It gave me a very different feeling from the city," Gong says.

The abandoned old house has been home to three generations of Li's husband's family. It was built in the 1970s by his grandparents, who raised seven children there.


Musicians play in Li's homestay. [Photo provided to China Daily]

At its most crowded, the house was divided into eight family units to house them all.

The designers retained the main rammed earth walls and the wooden frames.

"We envisioned the residence as a remainder of the spirit of the older generation," Gong says.

This became the premise for the overall planning.

The old house was preserved, while a brand-new building was built on the side and the whole site is composed of four courtyards.

The original rammed earth walls are clad with the recycled old bricks, and the wooden structures are exposed in the interior space, so guests can trace the history of the old house and the beauty of the structure is presented to them.

The old house has been updated to have a lobby, lounge, tea room, kitchen, dining room and two suites on the second floor.

Moreover, a large skylight is installed in the roof of the living room, bedroom and bathroom to introduce more natural light into the interior space. A restaurant featuring steel structures and glass curtain walls is built to the east side of the old house. Japanese cherry trees are planted in the east courtyard, offering guests a unique dining experience when the cherry blooms in spring.

A glass corridor connects the old house to the restaurant, with ponds on both sides.

"It seems as if the guests walk out of the water," Gong says.

A swimming pool is placed in the west courtyard, with a bar located on one side where guests can enjoy a refreshing drink and chat with friends.

The east, south and west courtyards are enclosed with glass railings, allowing guests in the courtyard to look out over unhindered views of the distant village.

After consulting with Li, the designers named her new home and guesthouse Mymory.

Almost as soon as the project was completed, Gong and Liu brought their friends from a choir to experience the property, and Liu wants more of their city-based friends to visit from time to time, to relax in the heart of nature.

"It feels great to sing together under the sky in the village, the songs echoing off the mountain and bamboo forest," Gong says.

More choir members have come to visit since.

Most of them come from downtown Hangzhou to practice singing on Li's homestay's balcony and pool.

Li and her husband love gardening and music, and their new home grants them much more space to continue their interests.

They are now taking care of the 2,000-square-meter garden, which is populated by a variety of plants, including rose, hydrangea, osmanthus and cedar.

The first thing Li does in the morning is to inspect the flowers and plants in the garden.

"It's the best of both worlds, having my own life and running a business I love," Li says.

After Mymory's opening in October 2019, the homestay became an online hit after guests shared their experiences on social media.

It didn't take long before she realized that her income was twice that of her previous job. Her husband also quit his job to focus on the homestay.

However, when the pandemic began, the couple shut the business down.

The first group of guests they welcomed back to the property turned out to be a commercial photography team, which came to the area to shoot advertisement and business publicity videos.

More visitors followed and soon overwhelmed the capacity of Mymory, so, Li has begun referring inquiring tourists to her neighbors.

The move has helped those locals to raise their annual income by 300,000-500,000 yuan ($46,410-77,350).

Since Li's homestay won the international award, local villagers have come to visit. Li says it gives her great pleasure to develop a relationship with the people in the village.

"The longer I stay here, the more I feel it was the right choice to come back, and this is more meaningful than making money," she says.

Li has bought exercise equipment for the village residents, including a table tennis table, a treadmill and a rowing machine.

She also built a pond and allows locals to go fishing for free.

Her homestay also offers job opportunities, which have lured many young people to come back to the village.

Li sends their 4-year-old son to a kindergarten in the village.

"The teachers here are very nice and patient, and the rural environment is great for him to get in touch with nature," Li says, adding that, even when her son reaches primary school age, he can go to a school in downtown Lin'an, which is just half an hour away from her homestay.

"In the past, I always felt that everything in a big city was good, but village life has let me taste more opportunities," Li says.