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Lai Guoping
The Heady Hotelier

001 Sunyata Hotel Meili Lai Guoping
  • Words Vidula Kotian
  • Images Björn Ceder

To translate an intellectual idea into bricks and mortar requires an ability to fine-tune ideas into living poetry. Thankfully, Lai Guoping is a creative spirit who is more than up to the task.

002 Sunyata Hotel Meili Staircase
003 Sunyata Hotel Meili Books

Lai Guoping possesses a unique quality: He is able to take his keen interest in ancient Chinese philosophy—particularly the fusion of Taoism and Buddhism during the Wei and Jin dynasties (220–420 AD)—and implement them into the current zeitgeist. Take, for example, his latest hotel project Sunyata, which means emptiness in Sanskrit. In ancient China, this idea, revered by the elite, meant looking for spiritual freedom and connection with nature rather than being driven by materialistic indulgence.

At Sunyata Hotel Meili, in the ruggedly awe-inspiring mountain terrain of Yunnan province, Lai’s vision was to create an abstract space without figurative decorations, thus allowing his guests to reconnect with their cultural identity. A leading light in the advertising world, the creative enterprenuer is credited with bringing the youth hostel culture from the West to China.

004 Sunyata Hotel Meili Landscape Mountain View
005 Sunyata Hotel Meili Mountain View
006 Sunyata Hotel Meili Hotel Exterior

What inspired your interest in Asian philosophy and literature?

The crucial point of Chinese philosophy is Taoism by Lao-Tze, which has a few points: hold a worldview before taking action; respect nature; and have a balanced point of view and way of living. There was also a famous writer, 1,000 years ago, called Tao Yuanming, who had a very unique voice as an escapist poet.


How did you come to choose wabi-sabi as the design principle of the hotel?

Wabi-sabi is a Japanese interpretation of an Asian philosophy. The same references can be found in Zen in Mahayana Buddism, which is before wabi-sabi, but still the ideas are interconnected with respect to treasuring imperfections and respecting the unpredictability of life. At Sunyata, my task was to interpret Tibetan culture as an outsider. I am from the mainland and therefore it was important to me not to build a fake Tibetan style. I did not want to imitate, so the only way was to go abstract, and the ideas of wabi-sabi fit in really well.

007 Sunyata Hotel Meili Book Pages
008 Sunyata Hotel Meili Dining Table Wabi Sabi
009 Sunyata Hotel Meili Pottery

“When I travel, I want to measure the culture and society by looking into myself.”

010 Sunyata Hotel Meili Lai Guoping

Since you’ve created a new experience for the modern Chinese traveler with Sunyata, what is it that you look for when you are traveling?

When I travel, I want to really immerse myself in the local culture. I want to measure the culture and society by looking into myself.

What is something that you once believed, but now don't?

I used to believe traveling is something really positive, but no longer. In the age of globalization, travel can bring post-colonialist ideas into a foreign culture and it breaks down the authenticity of the place. That’s why at Sunyata Meili, everything is laidback. We didn’t want to jump in and make a massive statement.

012 Sunyata Hotel Meili Plant
011 Sunyata Hotel Meili Lai Guoping Terrace

Who is your idol?

Wang Yangming is a Neo-Confucian philosopher from the Ming dynasty. He brought Buddhism to Confucianism, which ended up transforming the philosophy in a much more flexible way. There is the Buddhist belief of Nei-guan, which encourages you to look deep into yourself. This really inspired me.

How has your work ethic helped you to evolve?

I really work towards what I deeply believe in and somehow magically it has helped me become accomplished in many challenging situations in my career.


What is the best advice you ever received?

Ask yourself what you really need to do and believe in yourself, says Wang Yangming. China is a collectivist culture and so we do things because of peer pressure or we’ve been told to do something and told what is right. Yangming’s philosophy is totally the opposite.

013 Sunyata Hotel Meili Lai Guoping Reading Book
014 Sunyata Hotel Meili Flags

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