In a 16-year labour of love, a Chinese entrepreneur saved 10,000 trees and 50 Ming and Qing houses threatened by a dam project and transported them, brick by brick, 700km to Shanghai to become Amanyangyun luxury resort
Entering Amanyangyun, Aman Resorts' fourth luxury property in China, guests are invited to water a giant, 800-year-old camphor tree wrapped in red ribbon in the front courtyard. It's a spiritual moment that connects past and present in a timeless, visually striking scene. The tree grows a stone's throw from an ancient stone house called Nanshufang, and the modern wing of the 19.5ha resort, Aman's largest to date. Named after an inscription on a pavilion in Beijing's Forbidden City – yang yun, meaning nourishing cloud – the resort is the culmination of a 16-year conservation and restoration initiative that set a precedent for an individual effort.
Ma began a monumental initiative to transport about 10,000 camphor trees and more than 50 graceful Ming- and Qing-dynasty stone houses 700km to a new site, 27km southwest of Shanghai, that would become Amanyangyun
It began with a love story. In 2002, low-profile Chinese entrepreneur and philanthropist Ma Dadong realised his hometown, Fuzhou in Jiangxi Province – once home to imperial scholars such as Tang Xianzu, known as the Shakespeare of the Orient – was to be demolished to make way for a hydroelectric dam and reservoir. Heartbroken at the imminent destruction of more than 30 villages and an ancient forest, Ma moved swiftly to save what he could. With the clock ticking, he began a monumental initiative to transport about 10,000 camphor trees and more than 50 graceful Ming- and Qing-dynasty stone houses 700km to a new site, 27km southwest of Shanghai, that would eventually become Amanyangyun.To manage the preservation and transportation of these crumbling remnants of China's architectural heritage, Ma enlisted a host of experts in ancient Chinese architecture, engineering, preservation and craftsmanship. He also employed botanists to care for the trees, almost 80 per cent of which survived the move and are still thriving, years later. The historical houses were to be reassembled brick by brick, beam by beam. But leaving them empty posed a risk to the 400-year-old buildings.
Ma’s initial thought was to convert them into a museum, but his vision and perseverance drew the attention of Aman Resorts and, in 2009, it entered into a partnership with the entrepreneur to build a tranquil retreat that would breathe new life into these ancient houses and trees. Dan Pearson Studio was responsible for landscape curation, using the ancient camphor trees to create green streetscapes and gardens with an immediate feeling of maturity. Kerry Hill Architects, the Australian firm behind Aman Tokyo, was brought in to design the resort, blending modernity and tradition, East and West, old and new. The firm also took on the challenging task of reassembling the 50 antique houses to create 26 dwellings that retain the ancient timber pillars and stone carvings, which tell the family stories of the houses' original inhabitants, while seamlessly integrating contemporary touches.
"Construction with minimum intervention of these antique houses is important. We respect what is old and we only intervene in a way to make it liveable in today's world. You don't attempt to rebuild the old," said Hill, who sadly died in August. He was initially reluctant to take on the project because of its scale and the heritage and restoration dilemma.
Thirteen of the buildings were transformed into the resort's Antique Villas and pavilions (another 12 will be sold as private residences). At 800-1,000sqm (8,600-10,750sqf), the villas are designed around the traditional structures, which take centre stage in the reimagined interiors, complete with soaring ceilings, understated furnishings and windows that have been carefully positioned to encompass soothing landscape views. There are also private outdoor pools, Jacuzzis, courtyards and private gardens. Aman's signature design philosophy – minimalism with Asian influences – is apparent throughout in the neutral muted tones, refined wooden interiors, latticed screens and lighting fixtures that blend perfectly with the surroundings.
Thirteen of the buildings were transformed into the resort's Antique Villas and pavilions
As well as the villas, the resort has a modern guest wing with 24 contemporary Ming Courtyard Suites, whose sloping ceilings are designed to complement the serene surrounding woodland. These 99sqm (1,070sqf) suites comprise two private courtyards – one with a fireplace, the other with a Japanese-style soaking tub – in tribute to the structure of classic Chinese courtyard homes.
Housed within the most architecturally impressive antique buildings to have made the journey from Fuzhou, the Nanshufang central pavilion is used as a cultural centre. Named after the royal reading pavilion in the Forbidden City, it is a modern-day recreation of the scholars' studios of China's 17th-century literati. It comprises nine rooms set around a courtyard. Each room is furnished with pieces crafted from precious nanmu wood, characteristic of Ming interiors, and dedicated to a cultural activity such as tea appreciation, incense-making, calligraphy, music and painting.
Completing the resort, the 2,833sqm (30,500sqf) spa and wellness centre, one of the largest and most comprehensive in Shanghai, offers holistic wellness facilities – indoor and outdoor swimming pools, a plunge pool, yoga studio and spa treatments – amid a flourishing forest of camphor trees near a tranquil lake.
At Amanyangyun's grand opening celebrations, in April, performing artists conducted a ceremony to awaken the spirit of the 'Emperor Tree' by watering it. The ritual symbolised the spirituality of the ancient trees, which Ma believes have protected his ancestors for generations and which drove him to undertake the mammoth conservation initiative.
"As a guardian of the past, I realised the only way to protect and celebrate our history was by instilling a new life and purpose into these ancient homes and to allow the sacred trees that surround them to be animated with renewed spirit. Much like the ornate stone carvings and the stories they hold, this ambitious project will continue to nourish the next generation with hopes and expectations for the future," Ma says.
And he hasn't finished yet. Ma's next project is to turn the 20ha private forest of rescued camphor trees that neighbours Amanyangyun into a public park – one of the largest in Shanghai.