On a chilly morning in Hebei province, 20 miles north of the Great Wall of China, Jiang Xiaotian wandered out onto his patio overlooking a town that bears a more than passing resemblance to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. With its pitched roof, stone chimney and wooden exterior, his house looked just like every other in his neighborhood -- evoking the American Wild West he knows from the movies.
Jiang, a Hong Kong corporate executive, has never been to the United States, and before buying his weekend home, he had no particular affection for cowboy culture or American life. But somewhere -- over dozens of weekends spent at a resort town that's part suburbia, part spaghetti Western film set -- curiosity got the better of him. He began reading American novels and immersed himself in John Wayne films. Now, the interior of his vacation home is sprinkled with all-American kitsch -- there's a Zippo lighter collection, a mounted deer head, a black airsoft gun with a leather holster from Texas. The walls are hung with a framed copy of the Declaration of Independence and a Civil War-era map. On his mantle sits an embroidered hanging that reads, in red, white and blue, "God Bless the U.S.A."
"Actually, I don't really have any strong feelings toward the U.S.," Jiang explained as we sat on suede-upholstered chairs in his living room. "But there is something about the cowboy culture, and being near the mountains here, that gives you a feeling of total freedom."
A two-hour drive north of Beijing's oppressive smog and colorless high-rises, the town provides a surreal sense of escape. Jackson Hole, whose Chinese name literally translates to "Hometown U.S.A.," now consists of about 900 single-family homes with working fireplaces, wooden facades and landscaped footpaths. Still under construction is a primarily commercial section dubbed Teton Village, which will include a stage for cowboy stunt shows, a gold-panning area for children, and even a church. The resort's website shows images of all three, set to a lively banjo soundtrack.
China's wealthy urbanites have long flocked to tropical resort communities in seaside cities for short-term stays, but ownership of weekend homes in the countryside is a new phenomenon spurred by the explosive growth of the upper class. Fifteen percent of Chinese urban households owned two or more homes in 2007, according to research by Huang Youqin, a professor at the University of Albany, and that number continues to grow. Many of those homes are purchased purely as investments in a hot housing market, but researchers say country vacation homes make up a growing percentage, though themed resort towns are relatively rare.
It's a surprising phenomenon in a population that is more likely to associate the countryside with hard agrarian labor than a peaceful retreat to nature. But many vacation homeowners are part of an older upper class that seeks a respite from the growing crowding and pollution in cities, Jackson Hole's developers told me. Many have traveled or lived abroad and have brought back Western ideas about vacation and leisure.