China artist Fang Lijun poses for a picture in front of his self-portrait in Taipei April 17, 2009. REUTERS/Pichi Chuang (TAIWAN SOCIETY).

DALI, CHINA - One of the top ten things that you must do in Dali, according to the local lore, is find yourself in a courtyard of an old house and let your thoughts wander. No wonder you find signs saying ‘Lazy Lodge,’ ‘Lazy Bookstore,’ ‘Laidback Men’s Hotel,’ ‘Laziness is a blessing’ and the like as you stroll down this ancient square-shaped town that has drawn droves of contemporary Chinese artists such as Fang Lijun and Yue Minjun to establish their second studios.

Nestled in southwest China, bordering Tibet, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam, Dali is the capital of a special autonomous region inhabited predominantly by a minority group, Baizu, or the Bai People (literally, White People—so named because historically the group has held the white color in high esteem). During the Han Dynasty (circa 109 B.C.), Dali became a tributary state to China. Its rich local cultures and political history have fed the imagination of many chivalric romances and historical TV series.


Third Uncle.

I called him Sanshu (literally, Third Uncle, referring to him being the third son of his family), a medium built Bai man in his early forties and an inn keeper for a 20-room—only for people “in the know”—hotel owned by Fang Lijun. Arriving from Beijing, I was already quite familiar with Fang's multi-location restaurant chain Southern Silk Road, which features modernized cuisine of Yunnan Province, in which Dali is located. The hotel site used to be a deserted factory before Fang set up his studio in the 1990’s. To entertain his out-of-town visitors, Fang built stylish guestrooms and brewed Chinese baijiu (white liquor) from corn. Voila, in 2003, a hotel was born! At the time it was quite bold to have undivided sleeping and shower/toilet areas in one guestroom. This feature was eliminated during a 2011-2012 renovation after some honeymooners complained that they did not want to see how their darlings used the bathroom!

As contemporary Chinese art has gone through its own fast-spinning “industrialization” in the past decades, artists such as Fang Lijun must have found Dali a respite from the hustle-bustle of Beijing. Even though Fang spends one or two months per year in Dali to paint and relax, surely you will only find cheap reproductions of his works in the hotel. "Having originals on the wall would unnerve me," explained Third Uncle as Fang's prices have skyrocketed in the international auction market—an April 2012 sale of one of his 1993 acrylic paintings at Sotheby's fetched HK$28,660,000 (US$3,691,408; hammer price with buyer's premium).  


The reception area of the hotel with jars of white liquor (in fermentation).

When you wander through the narrow streets lined with white buildings, the colors of traditional Yunnan people’s costumes create a lively contrast. Sometimes you wonder whether these bold hues have somehow found their way into some of the “Cynical Realism” banner-bearer’s (as Fang is known) masterpieces.

Most of the boutique hotels in Dali play to the exoticism of the old Bai-style houses, but Fang's establishment is contemporary and unpretentious. From the roof, you can see Mount Cang and serene dove-grey rooftops and white walls that are the signature styles of the Bai houses.  

Third Uncle told me that Fang is building another studio in Dali. I wonder: would the white liquor in the gigantic red ceramic jars be ready for tasting upon my next visit?