Denba Daji remembers the day he cut his hair.
It was in the southern metropolis of Guangzhou in 1992. Daji is a Khampa, a member of a Tibetan tribe of herders and farmers whose men are known for their long, raven locks. He wore buns, festooned his pony tail with turquoise, wrapped it in a crimson sash--did anything but cut it.
But Daji was living in a Chinese world now. He was doing business in Guangdong, the fastest growing province in China. He was hustling, trying to make a buck, and he was a long, long way from home. When he'd go into offices to make a deal, Chinese would look askance at his braids. Some asked if he was a man or a woman. When he went to the men's room, he recalled, "everyone would run away."
"I was conflicted," he recalled. "Traditionally, Khampa men can't have their hair cut by a woman; and they shouldn't let scissors near their head."
Finally, on a stifling southern Chinese summer day, Daji went to a barbershop, prayed to Buddha, demanded a male barber and emerged with a closely cropped head of thick black hair. "After the haircut, I thought I was another person," he said. "I felt very, very strange."
For Daji, the haircut in Guangzhou was another step on a road that has brought him success and wealth in China. Today he is arguably the most prominent self-made Tibetan businessman in the country.
With two hotels, 30 percent of a winery in Shandong province, a seaside house in Fujian province and big plans to market some of Tibet's rare, medicinal roots to foreign lands, Daji is an unusual character. He breaks the mold of rich Chinese Tibetans, who generally have gained prominence by embezzling a percentage of Chinese government appropriations to Tibet or selling their souls to the Communist Party.
On the road to his riches, Daji has steered clear of politics and remains deeply religious. In 1997, he built a Buddhist temple in Langduo, his native village in western Sichuan near a sacred mountain. He keeps a small talisman in the breast pocket of his jacket. Wrapped in crimson string, it's a photo of a bespectacled monk, the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan leader who is pilloried in China as a separatist and a traitor.
Daji is an important character because his very existence is a challenge to the simplistic view that short of independence for Tibet there is no way out for this region while it is under Chinese Communist control. He is both intensely supportive of Tibetan culture and conscious of the limits imposed by the Chinese state. Outside of making money, Daji's primary concern now is in the survival of his people who are confronted with intense competition and assimilation by the Han, the largest ethnic group in China. As part of his efforts to help save Tibet, he is plowing his profits back there.
In recent years, Daji has started a vocational training program for Tibetan teenagers; he is funding a scholarship program for bright Tibetans; he is trying to develop a market for dolma, a Tibetan root that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been studying because it is high in nutrients. Such a project, Daji hopes, will help bring money to Tibet's dirt-poor countryside.
"I've spent 14 years of my life among Han Chinese," he said during a recent interview on the rooftop garden of his hotel in Lhasa. "During those years, I learned that the Tibetan people and the Han Chinese people are very different. The Han Chinese are very clever; they think more broadly than the Tibetans. Tibetan people are easily satisfied; the Chinese are never satisfied."
Daji's success also shows that it is possible to live as a self-aware Tibetan in China. In that sense, he's a living example of the complexity of the relationship between China and Tibet--a relationship that has been reduced to simplistic platitudes by Beijing on one side and support of Tibetan independence on the other.
"Daji is a remarkable man," said Arthur Holcombe, the former resident representative of the U.N. Development Program in Beijing and now the head of the Tibet Poverty Alleviation Fund, a Cambridge, Mass.-based private aid organization active in Tibet. "He has done exceedingly well in China playing by Chinese rules and now he's trying to turn this to the advantage of the Tibetan people."
It was not always this way.
Daji was born 37 years ago in the forbidding high country of western Sichuan, home to 1 million of China's 4.5 million ethnic Tibetans. To hear him tell it, his early years were spent fighting, stealing and generally raising hell. He was a horse thief, a gang leader, a tough guy, a bully. His first million, he acknowledges, was made trafficking in Tibetan antiques. But in the past few years, Daji has more than atoned for his sins. He has filled a room in the Potala Palace, the former winter residence of the Dalai Lama, with 204 priceless items, including Buddhist bronzes and gold and silver shrines. He has brought several precious Tibetan antiques back to China from Nepal and Hong Kong. And he built the first privately owned three-star hotel in Lhasa--the Daji Hotel, which was finished a year ago and makes a point of employing Tibetans.
"Perhaps he did questionable things in the past, but now he's a straight man," said Tashi Tsering, a 70-year-old professor who was educated at the University of Washington and is one of the few independent intellectuals in Tibet. "Anyway, no Tibetan so far has built a building such as his. We should be proud of him."
Of his youth, Daji said, "I was both tricky and tough so both old and young respected me. They were afraid of me."
Daji dropped out of elementary school and was an orphan by the time he was 17. He took a traditional path for a Khampa male: He left home to seek his fortune. He began trading in livestock and durable goods all the way to Xining, the capital of isolated Qinghai province, and Tibet's capital of Lhasa--weeks away on horseback. This was in the early 1980s when China was exploding with business opportunities. Daji once made a killing selling jewelry he bought in Beijing to Tibetans in Lhasa. That brought him $25,000. He took a portion of that money, bought an ancient prayer wheel and donated it to the Jokhang Monastery--the most sacred temple in Lhasa.
Although barely literate, Daji had learned a lot about antiques from an uncle and he began dealing in them. One leading dealer in Tibetan collectibles remembers Daji as a "wild man but a great salesman."
Daji said he stopped dealing in smuggled antiques in the late 1980s and began moving his money into legitimate investments. At that time, he was in Guangdong province working as a representative of a state-owned company from his hometown in western Sichuan. He was marketing caterpillar fungus to the Cantonese, who savor the wild mushroom-like dish. From Tibet, he also exported Chinese silk to Nepal and India.
"This experience made me realize that I could [be in] business for myself. I didn't need to be somebody's employee. I could be my own boss," he said.
Daji started his own firm in 1992. He made a lot of money in the real estate market and poured $3 million into a winery in Shandong.
In the past few years, Daji has turned his attention to helping young Tibetans. Confronted by a massive influx of more skilled and educated Han Chinese into Tibet, many Tibetans cannot compete.
"I'm not interested in politics. But I do know business, and business says if we can't compete with the Han, we will disappear," Daji said. "It's really that simple. So I am doing what I can to help my people."