Neeman Douji proudly calls himself one of the first owners of a Western restaurant in the country. The Tibetan businessman opened Tibetan Caf in Dali, Yunnan province, in 1986 - long before other Western-style eateries in big cities such as Beijing and Shanghai.
Born and raised in Dali, the 47-year-old and his caf have witnessed the city's evolution from a nondescript town to a mecca for tourists to this southwestern Chinese province.
With a history of more than 600 years, Dali used to be a significant hub on the trade route from central China to India. The old city is sandwiched between the 4,000 m Cangshan Mountain and the crystal clear 240-sq-km Erhai Lake, drawing 4 million tourists every year, with its beautiful landscapes and diverse ethnic cultures.
Huguo Road, dubbed "Foreigners Street", where Neeman's caf was originally located, was a favorite of both travelers on package tours as well as backpackers.
More than 100 cafes, bars, restaurants, shops and galleries sprang up on the 400-m street. And Neeman's caf was one of the most popular restaurants there. Its East-meets-West menu included local delicacies, such as roasted mutton, buttered tea and home-made dessert, and a wide variety of Western foods, such as steak, pizza and pasta.
Authentic food was not the only treat. Free Internet access, available since 1997, was one of Neeman's proudest offerings.
"The year 1997 marked the beginning of China's Internet industry," Neeman says.
English-speaking staff, convenient transportation and ticket booking services were all available, providing great relief to those who had been on the road for a while.
The outdoor seating, under a nice skylight, was perfect for visitors to sip a cuppa, enjoy their favorite novels, or talk of their traveling experiences with friendly locals and other tourists alike.
They usually stayed in Dali for five or six days and then hit the road again. But some of them stayed longer, making Dali a "home away home".
Back in the early 1980s, Dali was fairly underdeveloped, Neeman recalls, citing that Coca-Cola was a rare find.
The city began to see visitors from home and abroad in the mid-1980s. The number of foreigners, mostly backpackers, grew rapidly in 1987. "We could see about 100 foreigners hanging out everyday on the street," Neeman recalls.
Prices were low - a pizza cost 5 yuan and a bottle of beer 2 yuan - making it attractive to most tourists.
As the first Western restaurant on Foreigners' Street, the Tibetan Caf did see some difficulties in the beginning.
For one, Neeman could not find a chef who could make Western food. But he came up with an innovative solution, by posting this advertisement in the caf: "If you are willing to teach us how to make a Western dish, you can enjoy the dish for free."
It attracted many discerning diners and Neeman found a way out of his dilemma. Encouraged by Neeman's success, many others began to open businesses on the street.
Local tourism took off as Kunming, capital of Yunnan, hosted the World Horticultural Expo in 1999. The six-month event drew a constant flow of tourists from all over the world and brought many business opportunities to cities, such as Dali and Lijiang.
Besides tourists, artists, filmmakers, musicians and writers also flocked to Dali, "looking for inspiration or a getaway from city life", Neeman says. Some of them even bought a courtyard house and made Dali their second home while others, like Hong Kong pop singer Faye Wong, were regular visitors to the city.
In the early 1990s there were only six family-run guest houses in the city. This number now stands at 700. Five-star hotels and luxurious spas have also emerged, adding a modern touch to the skyline of this age-old city.
Despite his successful business, Neeman is increasingly concerned over the vanishing old courtyard houses and cobbled streets. "The once relaxed rhythm of life on Foreigners' Streets has been interrupted by the influx of tourists and reconstruction of old communities," Neeman says. "The whole city is losing its history bit by bit."
In 2004, Neeman moved his caf to Remin Road and expanded it to Tibetan Lodge. The road was one of the few "survivors" of the modernization process. The 1-km-street is lined with well-preserved traditional courtyard houses of the Bai ethnic group. "The environment is quieter and prices lower than on Foreigners' Street," Neeman says.
More businessmen followed in his footsteps. Bars, restaurants, cafes, boutiques, and guest houses, run either by locals or foreigners, can now be found at every turn.
"This is a lively but peaceful street, where you can either join those cheerful locals singing and dancing in the sun, or while away an afternoon in a quiet courtyard caf," Neeman says.
As one street after another in the neighborhood was renovated, Neeman and 100 other businessmen decided to take action and petitioned the local government to help preserve the old houses on Renmin Road.
It worked, and the city planning bureau has guaranteed that the road will be spared further renovation.