By Jeninne Lee-St. John
Photographed by Alejandro Scott
Mar 1, 2018
THEY SAY VISIONARIES WILL MOVE mountains to fulfill their dreams. Ma Dedong moved something far greater in the journey to create the newest Aman Resort. Practically speaking, it was a superhero feat to transport an entire thousand-year-old forest and 50 Ming and Qing dynasty–era villas 700 kilometers from Jianxi Province to the outskirts of Shanghai. But culturally and environmentally, this was also an epic operation, a preservation passion project the scale of which is unrivaled in the hospitality sphere and feels like a flat-out miracle in new development–happy China.
The story starts in 2002, when then-29-year-old Ma went home to visit his parents in Fuzhou and was devastated to see ancient camphor trees, revered for their spiritual healing powers, being felled. The Liao Fang reservoir was under construction, and villages were already under water. The area had been a cradle of the scholarly class, who lived up to 500 years ago in aristocratic villas made of elaborately carved stone and wood. Having survived the Cultural Revolution, now their homes were threatened by something as mundane as modern utilities?
Ma, newly minted after selling his advertising agency, decided to save as many of them as he could. Contracting a team of hundreds of botanists and experts in historic Chinese architecture, he undertook to uproot 10,502 camphor and 1,070 other trees, disassemble 50 antique houses, and whisk them all to safety over the course of a decade.
“Some believe trees have a soul,” Cecilia Yang, director of marketing communications of Amanyangyun, tells me as we stroll the grounds of this resort that opened in January 2018, “that they’re a witness to history, and it’s immoral to cut them down.” The preservation crew built roads over mountains, and bridges over rivers, carting the forest out on trucks, which at times overturned or got washed out by floods. The King Tree, a camphor at least 2,000 years old that sits in a place of honor in the center of Amanyangyun (the 8,000 others that have survived have been replanted in a nearby forest), was too wide for a highway tollbooth so the structure was demolished and the government compensated. Guests are invited to show their respect and, hopefully, glean some of its positive energy by watering its roots.
The water, incidentally, bubbles up from an ancient well that was excavated and also brought from Jianxi. You’ll find others scattered throughout the resort and within the showcase guest villas—those ancient houses that had been taken apart brick by brick, beam by beam, each piece marked sequentially so they could be put back together in order. The 26 reconstructed houses on site—13 are in the hotel, 12 are being sold as residences, and the last is the cultural center Nan Shufang— each took three years to complete.
Knowing all of this in no way lessens the surprise at being shown to your own antique villa for the first time. Every one is its own compound, encircled within a stone wall, with a zigzag walkway leading over a greenery-filled fish pond from which fog rises (hidden mist machines were installed to recreate the houses’ original woodlands habitat) to a majestic solid-façade old manse. “This is so lovely,” says my mom, who I’ve brought along to commune with her Chinese heritage. “Where is our house, though?” Told this is it, she gasps. “Oh, I thought this was a museum.”
BUT, OF COURSE, it is that, also. Behind our larger-than-life front door are two courtyards with water features under open skylights, a full kitchen for the 24/7 butler staff, an expansive living and dining area with a remote-controlled gas fireplace, and two vast bedrooms—the master including a tub carved from a continuous piece of rock. While the houses were mostly faithfully reassembled, floor-to-ceiling windows were added, second-floor lofts were removed and simple, modern furniture was selected by Kerry Hill Architects, giving the main room an airy, midcentury feel that meets the needs of today’s resort guest. A Modernist-interpretation annex across the courtyard contains two more bedrooms, and there’s a heated 20-meter lap pool to round out your US$10,000-a-night palace.
What’s fascinating is that across the property—all of which is a study in patience, dedication and serenity—a minimal Modern aesthetic of clean lines, right angles, unadorned high walls is overlaid on authentic ancient architecture defined by traditional carvings and symbolism and feng shui… and it totally works. It feels fluid, natural, at once past and present—which imbues the whole experience with such an overwhelming sense of tranquility that thinking back on it now is akin to meditation. Mom and I spent an inordinate amount of time at Amanyangyun marveling aloud, Where are we? What kind of time-traveling magician dreams this up?
Courtesy of Amanyangyun (2)
“Growing up, all I knew was that I had to work hard to change the destiny of my family. I didn’t expect to enter into a project like this,” says Ma, a polymath entrepreneur whose wildly successful ventures include a furniture business with reclaimed nanmu—the revered “golden-silk wood” that was used to make the Forbidden City and is now endangered—recovered from another damming site, and major investment management and real estate firms. “Instead, it became my life’s work. It changed my life.”
I’d like to be less cheesy about this, but staying at Amanyangyun in November, only the second journalist to do so, and before it opened to the public, also changed mine. It changed the way I, who stays in hotels for a living, think about hotels. Most, no matter how kitted-out, service-oriented, all-inclusive, or off in the middle of nowhere, are still a way station to a destination. But Amanyangyun has no choice but to be the destination. It is a genuine cultural immersion in an authentic place brought from somewhere else, and there’s nothing anywhere around it worth seeing besides Shanghai proper, which is nearly an hour away. So it is wonderfully liberating. It leaves you emotionally freed to track the shifting of the light across the pond and the wall moldings of your inner courtyard as the sun moves west, or to examine the joints, contemplating how many generations they’ve held this particular house together, what genius puzzle-masters their builders were so long ago. One of the houses was built around 400 pieces of wood that interlocked in such a way that it could not be taken apart until the lone key piece was identified and removed. The mind boggles.
Courtesy of Amanyangyun (2)
Ma is still transported by the place, he tells me after my visit. “I love the minimalism of the antique villa. I love the ceiling height. You can smell the wood and know it is aged. You can see the little cracks on the wooden beams and pillars, and you know they are very ancient and have histories. Sitting inside one of these villas, it makes me picture how those ancient Chinese people lived. My imagination feels boundless.”
AS THE MOST ambitious Aman to date, and one expecting to draw la créme of the local market, adjustments had to be made to the brand’s typical “your friend’s awesome vacation house” feel. It’s the first in the chain to have a ballroom, for example, in anticipation of top-shelf weddings. There are three restaurants—Japanese (romantic window seats offer great views across the lake), Italian (the veal Milanese and lobster tagliolini are standouts) and Chinese (Jianxi cuisine is a bit spicy, and often cooked in tea oil)—a cigar lounge and a bar, all around a large lawn that’s often shrouded in mist and accessed by covered walkways. The spa, including a Russian banya and two pools, is the largest in any Aman in the world, and is dedicated to integrated holistic healing, with treatments divided into grounding, nourishing and purifying categories, to be selected based on your physical and emotional goals.
And, speaking of metaphysical therapy, there’s the coup de grâce, the Nan Shufang. A center for the study of ancient Chinese arts, culture and reflection, filled with the trappings of the old-world literati, named after the royal reading room in the Forbidden City, it is the Nan Shufang that made this entire resort happen. The lore goes that Adrian Zecha, the founder of Aman Resorts, visited the first one Ma built and was awed by the space, the peace, the attention to detail. When they met, Ma still had almost all of his old villas warehoused, having not yet decided what to do with them; Zecha was looking for a wow new hotel site. It was a match made in, if not heaven, a nourishing cloud—the literal translation of yangyun.
At the grand Nan Shufang at the resort, guests can participate in tea and incense ceremonies, and take music, brush-painting and seal-carving lessons. Ma’s favorite activity is calligraphy: “I practice it every week, every day if I have time. As a self-cultivation practice, it helps relax my body and ease my soul.” And my mother and I find our own calligraphy class with Jon Wolfberg, the American-born expert in Chinese culture who is the director of the Nan Shufang, so engrossing that we keep him overtime, repeating our stroke orders on bamboo parchment as he explains the history, economy and mindset of the ancient scholarly lifestyle. “The imperial system test was the oldest meritocracy in civilization. Going back 2,000 years, young men would study core sciences, social sciences and arts like watercolors and poetry,” he says. Once they passed, life was less about competition than contemplation. They held incense ceremonies “to sit around with their friends and discuss the scent. Or, in solitary, they’d relax and find inner peace.” With my normally loquacious mom silenced by this brushwork, taken back, she later tells me, to her favorite part of her girlhood Chinese lessons, things are pretty peaceful indeed.
Courtesy of Amanyangyun (2)
Later that day, Jon and Cecilia take us on a secret visit to Ma’s own antique-filled lakeside house nearby, and then on an off-the-menu tour of the vast warehouse where all the pieces of 24 more antique houses remain lining the rafters and stacked in the yard. Jon points out the thick layers of mud and moss partially obscuring carvings on some façade stones. “During the Cultural Revolution, the villagers covered up any signs of the ancient elite so the authorities wouldn’t destroy their homes,” he explains. We meet masons at work restoring carvings and copying new ones to replace missing pieces. In a country clamoring for the new, these artisans are facing extinction as much as the nanmu trees. It occurs to me that in saving the camphor forests and the old houses, Ma has also saved their way of life, at least for now. His impact on the conservation of traditional culture is staggering, yet when confronted with that fact he, like the mandate of the Confucian scholars he reveres, only offers humility.
“I don’t see myself as having a significant role in the continuum of Chinese culture; I just have been doing something I personally cared about,” Ma says. “My purpose wasn’t to have my projects as models. I undertook them to delight my soul. I found myself in this endeavor.”
To have friends come from afar—is this not a delight? Confucius could as easily have been talking about 10,000 wise old camphor trees as the legion of Aman-junkies and history buffs itching to get a peek at this purposeful, practically unbelievable new resort they now oversee.
aman.com; Ming Courtyard suites from RMB6,000 per night; Antique Villas from RMB60,000 per night.