Markets and Chinese tourism

I have taken all our visitors to the tailors’ stall in the market in downtown Ningbo. They all seem to have enjoyed the experience, perhaps because it is definitely not on the tourist trail and has its own straightforward authenticity. Inside the shabby, grubby and slightly chaotic old building, local tradespeople cater for Ningboese who don’t want to shop either online or in the expensive shops around Tian Yi Square, just across the road. My last visitors spent over an hour happily rummaging through the brocades and more delicate silks, being measured up behind the flimsy black ‘curtain’ at the counter and showing the two women tailors the styles of dresses, blouses and jackets they would like. At the end of the session the tailors posed for photos with us and we left in high spirits.

The same friends turned out to have a great enthusiasm for markets of all kinds. When we were staying in the south China karst area, one day, en route to our bamboo raft trip, they persuaded me to make a half-mile detour on our bikes along a dusty, partly dug-up road to explore the local market in Baisha, a small town near Yangshou. The bustling market consisted of an open area where farmers and tradesmen showed their wares – vegetables, fruit, clothes, toys, false teeth – from the backs of vans and trucks; from here one progressed to a hangar full of small stalls selling noodles and street food, meat and other raw ingredients and every conceivable kind of useful household item.
We had been on a short cookery course by this time and my friends had been introduced to the quintessentially Chinese skills of cutting and chopping food. Chinese cooks use only one knife – a lethal looking cleaver, with a blade about 3 by 6 inches. Baisha market sported a whole section given over to metal tools, including cast iron cleavers. They proved irresistible – little did the charming bamboo raft men know that the foreign women on their boats were carrying two large and potentially dangerous kitchen knives.

I have always wanted to visit Longsheng (Dragon’s Back), the mountainous region to the north of Guilin, famous for its rice terraces. On our way back from Yangshou, we hired a taxi which drove us the 200 kilometres to Ping’an in Longsheng and then dropped us back at Guilin airport at the end of the day. The rice terraces were indeed picturesque – ancient narrow strips of land cleared for cultivation, winding around seemingly inhospitable mountains. It wasn’t the best time of year to see them, but the landscape was still remarkable.

Longsheng has been heavily marketed as a top tourist destination and has all the hallmarks of Chinese organised tourism. Cars and buses are stopped at a grand gate where money is extracted for each visitor. Finally, tourists are dropped off and must go through yet another barrier and run the gauntlet of a relentless series of retail opportunities – tourist tat as I cynically told my friends. After several visits to such places, I recognised the ‘local products’, all clearly made in the same Zhejiang factories. My heart sank.

Ping’an also has a ‘local’ ethnic minority population who are part of the visitor attraction. These people – mostly older women – sit in distinctive costume to sell the tourist tat and be looked at by the visiting Han Chinese. The village is made up of multi-storey wooden houses, clinging to the hillside and it is possible that the women live in them, although my suspicion was that they, like us, were bussed in everyday to add local colour, but perhaps this is unfair and they really live there.

As usual, the huge crowds of visiting Han Chinese enjoyed themselves immensely. A popular experience was to hire a Qing dynasty imperial costume and pose for a photograph in front of the best views of the terraces. I despaired of ever getting off the main drag and getting nearer to the landscape itself. We eventually got to a higher viewing point and suddenly saw a deserted path going off to one side of a restaurant. Although chased by a be-costumed woman stallholder, we made our escape and in a few minutes were on our own, enjoying the views and the atmosphere in relative isolation. It didn’t last long; a group of western students also found the path and over took us, but our mood had lifted.

On the way down the mountains, our taxi driver came across another essential Chinese experience – the traffic jam. Road works on a hairpin bend had caused mayhem. There were no traffic lights to control the traffic flow and a harassed work man walked up and down begging drivers not to overtake, get stuck on the wrong side of the road and prevent cars and lorries from coming up the mountain – a hopeless task. Our driver was skilful – he seemed instinctively to know when to dodge and weave, and when to get back in line. He probably saved us a couple of hours and we did finally get through. I’d read of traffic jams lasting 11 hours in Beijing and I feared that we would be spending the night on the mountain, rather than catching our flight to Shanghai.

Our slow progress allowed us to see ‘real’ ethnic minority villages on the banks of the river that cut through the valley descending from Longsheng. These rural settlements with their big, hall-like wooden houses seemed untroubled and, as yet, had not become gated communities, parcelled up for tourist consumption, but it may just be a matter of time.


Crowd control Chinese-style

Most activities in China for tourists involve large crowds. One example was my trip with two friends to see the evening performance, Impression Sanjie Liu, on the River Li in Yangshou, a tourist town nestling among craggy limestone peaks in China’s southern karst scenery. The show, directed by the film director Zhang Yimou, who choreographed the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics, is performed on the river by 600 local people, including boatmen on bamboo rafts, dancers, and singers from local ethnic minority groups, not to mention water buffalo and cormorants. Lighting is used to dramatic effect to illuminate the surrounding mountains, bamboo forests, floating scenery and eventually the costumes of the performers themselves. The show is so popular that it runs twice a night every day of the year for 2,000 people at each sitting.

Our guest house organised transport for us to get close to the performance park; the reception area thronged with noisy crowds, like a football ground on a Saturday afternoon, but with less transparent organisation, especially to a foreigner. Our taxi driver led us to a woman who gave us a small post-it note with indecipherable characters. She told us to follow a man holding a placard with 77 written on it. We clung nervously to each other until Mr 77 gave us three rather more official tickets and then marched us into an inner sanctum, where people seemed to be sitting in a large pavilion. Was this the auditorium? Where would our seats be? Where could the performance take place?

We must have looked pretty forlorn, as a young Chinese woman showed us yet another queue on an outer path and told us to wait there. It dawned on us that we were a long way away as yet from the real auditorium and that we still had 20 minutes or so to go. The idea of the crowd surging forward scared me, and I insisted we stood at the edge where we might escape any crush. In fact, about 15 minutes later, the crowd moved forward in a relatively orderly manner, and we soon found ourselves at official looking barriers, which scanned the bar code on our tickets. An usher took one look at us and saw that we had no idea how to find our seats and led us to them. We had made it!

As is so often the case in China, the people watching it proved to be as fascinating as the spectacle itself. The extraordinary light, sound and watery effects dazzled the audience who oohed and aahed appreciatively. There was a rather flimsy narrative but that wasn’t really the point of the show. It presented a nostalgic and satinised vision of the now rapidly disappearing and gruelling rural life on and around the river. If you cycle around the fields and farms you can still find the old way of life, but I doubt if it holds much interest for the newly urban Chinese who prefer the fictional version.

Most of the audience had arrived in coaches and minibuses and about 10 minutes before the end, the row of elderly spectators in front of us, all in identical red baseball caps, clearly began to get nervous about how they were going to avoid the crush to get out and ensure that they found their transport. They stood up, blocked everyone’s view and started to edge towards the aisle. An usher approached and firmly told them to sit down again. There was a backwards shuffle and while some found their chairs again, others slipped and sat on each other’s laps. The real performance seemed to be forgotten in the general merriment.

Eventually the show ended and we were all released into the night. The crowd dispersed without mishap and we were able to retrace our steps past the entrance and on through the rows of coaches and cars until we found our taxi man waiting at the agreed spot. Crowd control is a risky participative art form in China and I’m always relieved when I make it through safely.