The Fenghuang trip, part 2: ancient Fenghuang

JISHOU, HUNAN — Following our odyssey to the Miao village, we returned to our hotel in Fenghuang to rest up for the bonfire party.

Now, I had the impression it would be a participatory event: a group of people gathered around a big bonfire having a party. Seems reasonable, right?

Way wrong. The Bonfire Party is a performance in an amphitheatre near to the Golden Phoenix International Hotel, featuring local dancers, drummers and musicians. Included in the festivities were an auction of three pieces of art, the local tourist gimmick of “put on the Miao girl’s costume” on stage, and a long conga line at the end.

Don’t get the idea I disliked the experience. On the contrary, the dancing and music were wonderful, although it would have helped if I had had the libretto, and costumes dazzling. The photos I took unfortunately do the colors no justice. The girls did a good job explaining to me what was happening on stage — depictions of various aspects of Miao history and customs — but the details eluded me.

Kentuckians are probably familiar with “The Stephen Foster Story,” that perennial outdoor dramatization of the musician’s life and work in Bardstown. It uses Foster’s music to highlight Foster’s life, taking license with the chronology to make a good story. The movie “Mamma Mia” uses ABBA’s music to similiar effect, although of course that story is entirely fictional.

So, take that premise and merge it with an American Indian pow-wow, the kind they open to the public. At those events, you see native Americans in their elaborate ceremonial dress dancing presumably authentic dances, but with the suggestion that maybe it’s not all real. It’s more for show, than for an authentic expression of their own unique culture. That expression they probably save for more private affairs, I suspect.

Ultimately, then, the Bonfire Party is a tourist event, with little resemblance to a “real” Miao gathering. It’s cool, but not really authentic.

So it is with the shops in the ancient quarter. In between our restaurant meals and event attendance, we walked around the old part of town, which is jam packed with shops selling everything from silver jewelry to dried fruit. For the most part, these shops carry pretty much the same merchandise, which I have good reason to believe mostly does not originate locally.

For example, would locally woven textiles be wrapped in the plastic packaging seen in department stores? Would all silver vendors carry identical baubles, if they were all handmade? I’d say, no, that these shops are all probably ordering their stuff from the same wholesalers, hoping to sell it to an unwary tourist as “authentic” Miao artifacts.

Not all the shops are peddling knock-offs, though. We walked around enough, and the girls were savvy enough, for me to find a few vendors of genuinely unique items. I bought an elaborate papercut piece of art after my student Sheila pointed it out. It depicts the 12 animals of Chinese astrology in the shape of the characters “chu fu,” or luck. It looked handmade, and for 100 yuan, a bargain even if it wasn’t.

There are also tourist gimmicks in Fenghuang. For example, for a nominal sum you can have someone photograph you wearing Miao clothes, or Ming dynasty armor, or a princess’ robes. Street hawkers push photos of these get-ups in your general direction, while associates armed with expensive DSLR cameras loom nearby. I took the girls’ lead, and avoided eye contact while waving them away with a vague “I’m not interested” gesture.

We were lucky enough to happen upon a real Miao wedding ceremony, which includes singing by the local aunties bedecked in their best clothes and silver jewelry, drumming and flute playing. Fenghuang also has legitimate tourist attractions, the homes of the author Shen Congwen and artist-poet Huang Yongyu [I plan to write posts about both these men sometime soon], a geological museum, and examples of the original Ming dynasty architecture.

And no tacky tourist trappage can detract from the beauty of old Fenghuang as it hugs the Tuojiang River like a place out of time. At night, they light up the buildings along the river like it was Christmas in a US suburb. If you ignore the cookie-cutter merchandise and street hawkers, Fenghuang is well worth a trip — or a second or third, even. There aren’t too many 700-year-old towns around, after all.

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