Tuesday, November 25, 2008

"Is it A Hotel or Is it A Temple?" by Woeser


The following blog post was originally written for Radio Free Asia by Woeser and published on her blog on August 22nd 2007. For High Peaks Pure Earth readers who are curious about Laurence J. Brahm, read about his books on China Tibet Information Center's website and more about him on China Today's website.


Following the opening of the Qinghai-Tibet railway, the House of Shambhala hotel has opened as befitting the times. It is situated in Lhasa’s old Barkhor district in the middle of a residential area, the area is mostly made up of new houses replacing old ones.

House of Shambhala is a kind of not big but very exquisite boutique hotel and inside, the construction imitates Tibetan courtyard-style architecture.

The hotel also emphasises “Tibetan culture” and it is apparent that the "Yarlu Tsangpo Hotel", which is like an upstart, can not be comparable to the House of Shambhala. The latter looks much more authentic, especially in the sense that much attention was put into details, as is the case of the splendid designs of Tibetan-style window frames, the carved stone images or carved scriptures which are placed on the walls, or pleasantly asymmetrical Tsatsas (miniature statues) etc. All this makes the House of Shambhala the most authentic Tibetan hotel.

However, the problem lies in the fact that its appearance highly resembles a temple. Hotels are not temples, just like hotels are neither Christian churches nor mosques. Everything in the world originally has its proper place, if there is a tendency insistently to make hotels look like temples then is this not a kind of ignorance and arbitrariness? At the House of Shambhala, I saw an old Tibetan Buddhist pilgrim mistake the place for a temple, entering whilst respectfully bowing her head, turning the tall prayer wheels at the door of the hotel with her hands, her mouth mumbling away but she quickly stopped to look around the courtyard in bewilderment, her face expressing confusion, not knowing what to do, as she turned around and ran away.

I still to this day remember the expression on her face, which is bewilderment as a result of one’s pious aspirations have not been settled but does not know where to place them.

House of Shambhala was opened by an American called Laurence J. Brahm (Chinese name: 龙安志, Long Anzhi), who is well-known in Lhasa now. He is not only a very successful western businessman in China, but also a writer who has written a dozen books about China. And what the Chinese government likes most about him is that he often writes for English publication articles in which the fundamentals are very similar to those of the People’s Daily. Recently, he nurtured a keen interest for Tibet, and wrote several books whose main topic is Tibetan culture. His documentaries have been used by the Chinese government as a propaganda tool, he shakes hands with government officials and was the first foreign disciple of the CCP’s Panchen Lama. It’s even said that his son recently became a tulku (reincarnated Lama) at a Tibetan monastery overseas.

Visiting his hotel, you would note that he uses the concept of Shambhala to build a new Tibet which has nothing to do with Tibet as it is known now. ‘Shambhala’ is originally an ideal world of Tibetan buddhism but he turns the concept into a hotel; therefore he intentionally has the hotel look like a temple in order to provide strangers with the feeling that they are staying in a ‘harmonious Tibet’, without suffering or risk. It does not matter much if this ‘harmonious Tibet’ only is an imitation or legend, however, books written by him are displayed in every room. In his books, he skilfully carries out misinterpretations about Tibet today which lead to spreading misconceptions. The aim is to ingratiate himself to the ruler of this piece of land. Tibet in fact has been turned into a symbol of consumerism; it is more a tool for him to earn more money. He is a true cultural imperialist. Tibet represents not only a money-making tool but also a garden and a stage on which to fulfil his imperialist interest.

I once saw Laurence J. Brahm at Lhasa’s Gendun Choephel Gallery at a lecture about art. There were painters, art lovers and foreigners studying Tibetan culture present. The little room was completely full. Amid the lecture, a foreigner wearing elegant clothes, sunglasses, and latching a big dog as white as his hair suddenly appeared and quickly disappeared after saying goodbye in a very fluent Beijing-accented Chinese. The entire process was carried out in a very theatrical, exaggerated and artificial way.

A hotel resembling a temple - House of Shambhala

Laurence J. Brahm
(in the centre, the silver-haired man wearing sunglasses)

9 comments:

Dan said...

I get Woeser's point. Imagine, breakfast in the rooftop garden with a view of the Potala. Kitaro music creating an etheric background. And chömé (mchod-me) offering lamps on the table next to the coffee. Ah, authenticity staged at the price of meaning for the sake of cold cash. With economies in apparent free-fall, maybe capitalist exploitative 'socialist' ventures such as these will be the first to fail.

"Culturally sustainable development" my hat!

maddycat said...

Interesting, this man also owns some hotels in Beijing, one is called The Red Capital Club. It is also a court yard hotel made to look old like the houses real houses they have torn down the old Hutong lanes in Beijing.I have stayed there and now upset to here that he is in bed with the government. He seems very much like an Opportunist to me
Diane

Hpeaks said...

Thank you for your comments!

Brahm’s businesses in China extend further than the Red Capital Club – it appears to be a whole group of service industry and lifestyle treats including the Red Capital Ranch, an eco-resort just outside of Beijing that boasts a “Tibetan Tiger Lounge” and a “Tibetan Secret Spa”. Whilst we’re on the subject, publicity material for the fairly new boutique hotel “Hotel G” in Beijing also speaks of “a split-level rooftop restaurant and lounge/bar on the 8th and 10th floors serving Mediterranean cuisine with a Tibetan twist – complete with a Tibetan-style tent and open fireplace.” If any High Peaks Pure Earth readers are ever lucky enough to sample their “Mediterranean cuisine with a Tibetan twist” please share your experiences with us all!

Back to Brahm though, his passion to help Tibetans is evident in his NGO called, yes, Shambhala and they put on fancy events in Beijing to fundraise such as this recent one: http://www.shambhala-action.org/event.htm Interesting to note that one of the speakers was none other than "Princess Yabshi Pan Rinzinwangmo". Aside from his China-based activities, Brahm pops up in news articles here and there related to China Tibet politics. In the New York Times of 2nd July 2008 he was quoted as saying “Over the past two months, both sides have done a lot of work to try to create a positive ambience,” and was described as a “businessman in Beijing who has served as an informal liaison between the sides”. One day earlier, Reuters had quoted him as saying "We have an ambience moving in a positive trajectory, if it continues, we can hope for a successful round."

What these comments reveal is that Brahm is someone who always looks on the bright side of life when it comes to Tibet. How can we know that for sure? Going back to 2006, Brahm spoke to Bloomberg about his decision to open a boutique hotel in Lhasa, "I have a very strong feeling they are going to solve this issue by 2008, when Beijing hosts the Olympics, I would not put my time and money here if I wasn't optimistic."

Anonymous said...

I like the title of this blog post. Yes, he sounds like a real opportunist and knows nothing about the real situation in Tibet.

Anonymous said...

We Tibetans need to grow up and need to more logical. There are so many people who make money in the names of Tibet and Tibetans although distort the real Tibet and Tibetans. Graham is such a person. He went little further than making money, he actually trampled onto the faith and culture we Tibetans cherish.

Regarding Rinzin wangmo, many Tibetans still have some feeling to the girl since he is the daughter of previous Penchen Lama. Please cautious, her mom is Chinese, she left school in the US and went back to China. She is treated specially by the Chinese government. She will be used by Chinese government whenever appropriate by manipulating the faith. We should not give a damn to her.....please, don't get misled again.

Lhasapumo said...

Woeser is too quick to judge Brahm. He is not the cold-blooded capitalist Woeser makes him out to be. He absolutely knows about the situation in Tibet and wants to help Tibetans.

Brahm had his Beijing hotels long before he ever started business in Tibet. Since becoming interested in Tibet, he has replaced all his Han Chinese staff at his eco-lodge near the great wall with Tibetan workers.

All of the workers and staff at Brahm's hotel in Lhasa are Tibetan. While the hotel is temple-like, I do not think he is trying to exploit Tibetan religion to make money. He's providing what he believes to be a very "Tibetan" experience to an international traveler. In addition, his international prices subsidize his projects in Tibet. He has an orphanage outside Lhasa and has worked to build clinics staffed by locals for locals.

Brahm has very smartly worked with the government to make his projects possible. Without its support, none of the things he has done would have been possible. However, he is very keenly aware of how the government treats Tibet and Tibetans. He has become obsessed with helping Tibetans as much as he can given his role as a businessman and hotel owner.

Woeser is a hero of mine, but she should think to at least meet him and talk to him. I think she would learn a lot. Or, maybe she has, and it's helping his efforts to criticize him. If she were to praise his work, the government would only create obstacles for him and all the Tibetans he employs.

Dorji said...

Pretend Lhasapumo wrote: Woeser 'would learn a lot" if she were to meet Mr Opportunists, it should be other way around, Mr Brahm would learn the reality of Tibet today and gain much knowledge from meeting Woeser la. Do not mistake profit motive disguised as a charitable work. Even the worest multinational companies do some charitable works.

Dan said...

Dear Lhasa Maiden,

You say, "He's providing what he believes to be a very "Tibetan" experience to an international traveler."

I say that's just what I mean by exploitation. And that's just what I mean by "staged authenticity." He makes money from it, doesn't he? All the rest is unnecessary frosting on a very old cake that never did taste good. (Or more to the point, never was in good taste.) The Tibetan 'cake', meanwhile, is just left out in the rain.

Anonymous said...

While never excusable, for a foreigner to still appropriate the Tibetan identity after the Spring Uprising is barbaric.