Conversion as an aside

fallowsJames Fallows is a maddeningly prolific writer who makes it look easy to grind out thousands of words about China's economic development, or alternatives in air travel or the finer points of software. Sometimes, though, he can miss some fine human-interest details while performing an exhaustingly thorough survey of nuts and bolts. In the October issue of The Atlantic, Fallows writes about two entrepreneurs -- Sayling Wen (now deceased) and Kenny Lin -- have tried to help the very poor residents of a region in western China called Yellow Sheep River. Fallows has a gift for capturing a sense of place, and he jokes twice in this piece about the choices he would make if he ran a travel agency.

He goes on at length about a resort that is part of the entrepreneurs' strategy for helping the people of Yellow Sheep River:

By the end of 2004 the conference center was done, and officials from around China attended a grand-opening ceremony. "But our original business model was lots of conferences, and Mr. Wen, with his connections, was the central part of that model," Kenny Lin told me. "Now there is no one to invite the people he could bring."

Lin told me this in the summer of 2007, as my wife and I walked along the echoing marble floors of the conference center, beneath a larger-than-life-sized portrait of Sayling Wen. We had heard about Yellow Sheep River, which has been well publicized in China, and had gotten in touch with Lin through mutual friends. In the 145-room resort, we appeared to be the only paying guests (the list price is about $100 a night). A full, uniformed staff was on hand -- to welcome us to the breakfast buffet, to hand us towels at the pool and exercise room, to greet us when we went in and out the front door.

I have seen deserted resort-palaces before -- for example, a ghostly one in the Ilocos area of northern Luzon, which Ferdinand Marcos had built strictly for his daughter's wedding and which stayed open, empty, for years after he was deposed. But this was different, in retaining an air of hopefulness rather than sheer decadence. And hopeful is how I feel about the several legacies of Sayling Wen's vision for western China.

Compare that to these penurious 47 words about one reason that both entrepreneurs felt a passion to help this region:

On Christmas Day, [Wen] overheard Kenny Lin say that Yellow Sheep River now gave purpose to his life. Neither man had known about the other's recent interest in western China. Both had converted to Christianity, and both thought of helping western China partly as a spiritual obligation.

That's it regarding the spiritual life of these two visionaries.

In fairness, I would know nothing about Yellow Sheep River, Wen or Lin were it not for Fallows' report. I wish, though, that he would have found another few hundred words -- amid the 4,100 he devoted to this story -- to a spiritual drama that cries for more detail.

Beret tip: Amy Welborn, via email.

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