A Fortune in Hand
How an ethnic minority man in Yunnan gets out of poverty by operating a family inn
By He Shan  ·  2019-05-10  ·   Source: NO. 20 MAY 16, 2019

A view from the rooms of the family inn run by Yu Wulin in Laomudeng Village in Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture, southwest China's Yunnan Province, on April 20 (GAO ANMING)

Tucked in a remote hamlet named Laomudeng Village in Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture, southwest China's Yunnan Province, Yu Wulin's guesthouse is tidy, cozy and more or less exotic.

However, 43-year-old Yu, who is from the Nu ethnic group, hadn't dreamed of being an innkeeper while growing up a farmer like most of his neighbors in the impoverished region.

In the Nu dialect, Laomudeng means "the place people love to go." The hillside village, surrounded by high mountains and green fields, is best known for its view of a canyon on the Nujiang River.

Prime real estate 

As the fifth and youngest child in his family, Yu grew up with little food and clothing, and even without shoes.

What his family did have was a picturesque view of a steep valley and the winding Nujiang River. The area remains primitive and unspoiled by the world's hustle and bustle.

In the 1990s, he began noticing backpackers trekking muddy roads to reach his village. Many asked his family for lodging and meals and paid cash when they left.

Still, Yu didn't consider it an opportunity for business.

"We were just curious and wondered why they had nothing better to do than backpack to such a remote village," he said.

In 1996, Yu dropped out of high school and left for Shanghai as a singer, marking the first time he traveled outside his village. Seeing the metropolis was certainly a novelty for Yu, but he grew homesick by the day and finally returned to Laomudeng at the end of 1997.

He married a woman from the Dulong ethnic group whom he had met in Shanghai, a coworker from the performance troupe. The couple devoted themselves to farm work but found that they could barely make ends meet.

"Back then we lived in a bamboo house, we could only buy new clothes for our kids once a year and could hardly ever afford to go to the county seat," Yu said.

The entrance of a family inn run by Yu Wulin in Laomudeng Village on April 20 (YUAN YUAN) 

A helping hand 

Things began to change in 2000. The local government granted aid to local residents in order to promote tourism, and the couple was the first in Laomudeng to open a guesthouse.

"The experience of working in Shanghai had broadened my horizons and given me the opportunity to make new friends," Yu said.

Some of these friends helped him promote the family inn on the Internet. Yu also became fluent in Mandarin, a precious skill in his ethnically diverse hometown where most people communicate in local dialects.

Since Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture has historically been one of China's poorest western areas, the Central Government worked out targeted measures to help develop the area.

It helped local people build houses and pave roads, and provided access to running water at home.

"My success with my guesthouses can be largely attributed to the favorable policies and support of the government," Yu said.

In 2012, as more tourists visited the village, he expanded the inn. To help him build new rooms, the local tourism bureau granted him 50,000 yuan ($7,430) in subsidies, and the county government gave him 10 tons of cement.

When the renovated 11-room inn couldn't accommodate all his customers, Yu opened a second inn in 2017, with a low-interest bank loan of 2.7 million yuan ($398,871).

It was built to be more modern, complete with toilets, Wi-Fi and a public area to allow different groups of guests to eat together and sit around an indoor fire pit.

As a musician and singer, Yu often presents guests with traditional Nu ethnic dances and music together with local folk performers, bringing them a taste of the local culture.

The upgrades allowed Yu to charge a premium rate of 260 yuan ($38) for a standard room, compared to 20 yuan ($3) a bed when he first started. His annual income has climbed to 400,000 yuan ($59,100), a small fortune in the area.

Yu Wulin (right) introduces a folk instrument of the Nu ethnic group to his guests in his family inn on April 20 (GAO ANMING) 

Setting an example 

Yu's inns employ dozens of local villagers, including some of his relatives, and he pays them monthly salaries between 2,000-2,600 yuan ($295-$384).

His success also inspired others: 18 households in the village have since opened guesthouses, and the once shanty-filled village is now colored with brightly painted houses with modern comforts.

"Yu is always ready to help whenever his peer villagers run into difficulties while operating a guesthouse," said Bian Jianwen, an official from the government of Fugong County, where Yu's village is located. "Villagers also meet from time to time to discuss business and projects they can work on together."

Yu's two sons are now majoring in hotel management at a technical secondary school in Kunming, capital city of Yunnan.

"I hope they will come back after graduation and help run my guesthouses," he said.

(Reporting from Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture, Yunnan Province) 

This article was first published on 

Copyedited by Rebeca Toledo 

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