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December 25, 2010

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Old farmhouse welcomes artists and designers

A young business woman with a creative flare has set up a community for artists and designers on farmland where organic vegetables and healthy ideas sprout. Victoria Fei pays a visit.

While some urbanites scorn the simple pleasures of rural living, many artists are known for their love of rustic nature and pursuit of peace and quiet.

Sun Yanghuan, a 29-year-old businesswoman and creative spirit, thinks country life is romantic and poetic and she has turned her bucolic visions into reality in Chongming County.

In March, Sun established Qing Land, the city's first rural creative industry cluster. Her idea was "green plus creativity" and her project has renovated an old farmhouse into artists' studios and creative space. The surrounding area is used to grow organic vegetables for sale and delivery.

Qing Land's first renovation project, a rambling farmhouse in Nanjiang Village, was empty for a decade. She transformed it into a combination of Chinese and Nordic styles in an 8.6-hectare setting.

It will open soon for tenants and more farmhouses are expected to be converted for artistic types.

The original exterior has been retained, while the interior has been modernized and the rooms painted red, yellow and green and decorated with farm tools.

It is surrounded by fields and there's a pond nearby. Inside, the experience is like being in a downtown creative cluster such as Tianzifang on Taikang Road, or the Bridge 8 on Jianguo Road M.

Sun's decision to link a rural and environmentally friendly setting with creativity was inspired by her four-year study at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom.

Her experience overseas was more broadening than that of many Chinese studying abroad, she says.

Three times a month, her host family volunteered at an organic farm and Sun sometimes joined them on weekends. That's when she encountered organic food and the concept of "buying local and eating fresh." That was the seed of an idea: to someday create a "rural happy land" in China.

After returning home in 2004, all her family wished for her was a secure job. But Sun, who likes a challenge, turned to business and exported shoes.

In five years, she turned seed money of 20,000 yuan (US$3,009) into 1 million yuan via shoe export business. And she invested 1 million in Qing Land.

"I am an open person with a pioneering spirit," Sun says. "I like to pursue dreams."

The decision to locate in Chongming was simple for Sun, since the county administration emphasizes environmentally friendly development and preservation of its scenery and rural lifestyle.

At first some of her artist friends wanted a rural house to use as a studio and a bit of land to grow their own vegetables. So they rented a house and land in Chongming.

"Our experience with the farmers was pleasant, they are simple and nice to everyone and often invited us to dinner," Sun recalls.

Meanwhile, Sun noticed that village young didn't want to stay on the island and preferred to move to downtown areas for more money.

"What we encountered were mostly young children and seniors in villages, causing slow and backward development of agriculture," she says.

The average per capita income in Nanjiang Village was less than half the average of the city as a whole, "so we decided to do something for them."

After brainstorming, she and her friends settled on the concept of "green and creative" and got down to improving prospects for livelihood in the area.

Most people at Sun's age don't have the money to make a big investment in their dreams, but Sun already had her seed capital from the shoe export business. That wasn't a problem.

Negotiating leases with farmers was a challenge, however, and she found the amiable and hospitable farmers could be difficult.

"Inviting you for lunch or dinner shows their hospitality, but it's another thing to talk about business such as renting land and new farming concepts. They couldn't catch up with our way of thinking," she recalls.

She cites contracts, saying that sometimes after signing farmers would soon change their minds, regret the deal or propose amendments the next day. "I had to be patient and explain everything in detail," she says.

Today Qing Land has leased more than 8 hectares. Individuals can buy a membership in the agricultural project and order particular types and quantities of vegetables every week. Staff delivers the produce.

The farmhouse will become a venue for barbecues, salons and gatherings of friends.

The farmers no longer are bewildered by what the young people are doing with old farmhouses and help them grow vegetables. Now the farmers are growing produce organically and for more income.

Sun is now planning next year's outdoor events.

"Stay tuned," she says. "There will be bazaars, graffiti and art salons bringing new vitality to Chongming Island."


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