Tag Archives: China

The Packaging of Culture: Dai on the Lancang

A road repair worker in Basa village, Xishuangbanna, China. The village is home to the Jinuo ethnic minority.

A road repair worker in Basa village, Xishuangbanna, China. The village is home to the Jinuo ethnic minority.

A thick mist settled over the highway as we drove out of Jinghong, and only through short patches in the haze could we see the extent of the vast scenery we were passing. We were headed to the southeastern edge of Xishuangbanna prefecture, just 30km from the Burmese border to visit several communities of Dai people.

An ethnic minority, the Dai people were part of an ancient culture that inhabited what is now China’s Yunnan province until political chaos and wars forced them to disperse south. Now spread across China, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Thailand, the roughly 60 million Dai are divided by modern international borders.

As we wound our way along the mountain road that would take us to the Dai villages we passed through dozens of small villages, catching fleeting glimpses of people walking through the blanketing fog, heading to their farms or leading their livestock to feed. It wasn’t until we arrived at Olive Dam – so named for it’s resemblance of an olive from the air, and the word dam meaning “basin” in Mandarin – situated at the bottom of a deep valley, that the sun fully rose to burn off the mist.

A Jinuo man watches over his buffalo in Basa village, Xishuangbanna, China. The Jinuo are an ehtnic minority found in western China.

A Jinuo man watches over his buffalo in Basa village.

Packaged Culture

Though we knew the area was advertised heavily as a tourist attraction, the extent of the commercialization of the culture was seemed excessive. Gift shops and souvenir stalls lined a large parking lot where tour busses had already gathered, despite the early hour. An information pamphlet welcomed us to the “Dai Minority Park”, and we began to suspect that the day’s cultural experience might be something less than authentic.

Through our Mandarin speaking friend and travel companion, Yan, we learned that in fact the park was owned by a private real estate developer that had consolidated several Dai villages into a single tourist destination. In exchange, a portion of the income was given back to the Dais in the form of jobs, infrastructure, and possibly cash. While we decided to reserve judgement until we had seen more of what lay inside, we immediately began referring to the area as “the theme park”, and the immaculately paved roads and manicured gardens further increased our skepticism.

As we walked through the community, it was clear that the residents of the minority park were far better off financially than those in the less developed villages we had passed earlier that morning. Most of the houses were new looking and well built with concrete and finished wood, and newish looking cars and motorcycles were parked in front of the majority. Living in the theme park was apparently not without benefits.

Residents and staff at the Olive Dam Dai cultural village take part in a daily water festival, Xishuangbanna, China. The Dai are an ethnic minority living in western China as well as northern Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Residents and staff at the Olive Dam Dai cultural village take part in a daily water festival.

Residents and staff at the Olive Dam Dai cultural village take part in a daily water festival, Xishuangbanna, China. The Dai are an ethnic minority living in western China as well as northern Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Residents and staff at the Olive Dam Dai cultural village take part in a daily water festival.

In the distance the thumping bass of loud music drew us deeper into the village until we reached a large open area, packed with people. In the centre Dais, dressed in brightly coloured silks, splashed in a shallow pool of water encircling a fountain and tourists ringed the outer edges, cameras at the ready. The event was a reenactment of the annual water festival celebrated in April of each year, held twice a day for the enjoyment of visitors. And while the whole affair was a rehearsed performance, the Dai actors were clearly enjoying themselves as they hurled buckets of water at each other, and occasionally those tourists who ventured too near the water’s edge.

After half an hour of the playful display, the crowd migrated towards a nearby stadium, stopping to buy snacks of fried vegetables or spicy papaya salad. A solitary caged elephant stood by, and some visitors opted to climb a metal staircase onto its back to have their photos taken. Since spending a great deal of time earlier in the journey learning about the precarious relationship between humans and elephants in Laos, we were especially sensitive to the plight of the animals and the sight somewhat dampened our spirits. However we knew there was nothing to be done about it, save staging an ill-advised prison break, so we resigned ourselves to muttering an impotent apology to the animal as we joined the flow of people entering the stadium.

An elephant waits to be ridden by tourists at the Olive Dam Dai cultural village in Xishuangbanna, China. The Dai are an ethnic minority living in western China as well as northern Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.

An elephant waits to be ridden by tourists at the Olive Dam Dai cultural village.

For the next hour the audience was treated to a variety of Dai traditional dances and calligraphy displays. While the dances were impressively choreographed with dozens of young women in beautiful silken dresses and the calligrapher mesmerizing to watch as he smoothly painted characters onto large parchments, we knew we were learning about as much about the realities of modern day Dai life as a trip to Disneyland could teach us about film production.

Dancers perform for tourists at the Olive Dam Dai cultural village in Xishuangbanna, China. The Dai are an ethnic minority living in western China as well as northern Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Dancers perform for tourists at the Olive Dam Dai cultural village.

A Chinese caligraphy demonstration for tourists at the Olive Dam Dai cultural village  in Xishuangbanna, China. The Dai are an ethnic minority living in western China as well as northern Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.

A Chinese caligraphy demonstration for tourists at the Olive Dam Dai cultural village.

A Chinese caligraphy demonstration for tourists at the Olive Dam Dai cultural village in Xishuangbanna, China. The Dai are an ethnic minority living in western China as well as northern Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.

A Chinese caligraphy demonstration for tourists.

There was nothing inherently wrong with the Dai Minority Village, and obviously it had brought security and prosperity to the communities. Dancing was surely a nicer way to make a living than toiling in the fields, but we wanted to get away from the canned performances to see what normal Dai people did in their everyday lives.

The Opposite Bank

After waiting for the arrival of a small ferry boat to shuttle us across the Lancang to the Dai village of Manhenuan, the difference was immediately obvious. Unlike in the Minority Park with its expansive paved roads, there was a stone beach with a rutted motorcycle path that lead inland. Locals sat along the water’s edge, casting fishing rods into the river and waiting patiently for bites that did not seem to come.

Residents fish in the Lancang (Mekong) river near Manhenuan village, Xishuangbanna, China.

Residents fish in the Lancang.

Residents fish in the Lancang (Mekong) river near Manhenuan village, Xishuangbanna, China.

Residents fish in the Lancang (Mekong) river.

“Here we grow many things like bananas, corn, rubber, and beans,” Yu Yinghan said. A young woman in her late 20’s, we found Yu fishing with her husband on the river’s edge and had stopped to ask her about the differences between Manhenuan and the nearby cultural park. “We have what we need here, so we don’t want to work full time for a big company. We would rather work for ourselves.”

Bean farmer Yan Wenxiang, stands next to his crops in Manhenuan village, Xishuangbanna, China.

Bean farmer Yan Wenxiang, stands next to his crops in Manhenuan village.

Further inland, the rockiness of the Lancang’s banks gave way to bright green expanses of farmland, set against the backdrop of the rolling mountains on the horizon. Moving between neat rows of string beans, we met Yan Wenxiang and decided to switch gears to ask about the role of the Lancang in the daily lives of Manhenuan residents.

“I’ve lived here my whole life,” he said. “I water my crops from the river, though it’s too dirty to drink. Usually there is enough [for the crops], but sometimes because of the nearby dams there is not. Yesterday there was enough, but not today.”

A woman walks past the farmland of Manhenuan village, Xishuangbanna, China. With the financial success of the nearby Dai minority cultural village at Olive Dam, residents of Manhenuan are trying to open their village up to tourism as well.

A woman walks past the farmland of Manhenuan village.

A farmer drives his tractor near Manhenuan village, Xishuangbanna, China. With the financial success of the nearby Dai minority cultural village at Olive Dam, residents of Manhenuan are trying to open their village up to tourism as well.

A farmer drives his tractor near Manhenuan village.

Unlike those across the river, the Dais of Manhenuan lived a more traditional lifestyle and relied on the land and its natural resources as their primary source of income, instead of the tourist dollars that supported the Minority Park.

While we watched labourers heft 60kg sacks of picked beans onto tractors to be sold for 2-3 Yuan (roughly $0.50) per kilogram, we chatted with them and reflected on the strange paradox of development. As outside observers, the rural lifestyle of Manhenuan’s farming Dais conjured words like “idyllic” and “natural” in our minds. Friendly and laughing the whole time they worked, it would have been easy to assume that this way of living was inherently better than allowing a real estate company to turn their village into a theme park.

Farmers pick peas and beans in Manhenuan village, Xishuangbanna, China.

Farmers pick peas and beans in Manhenuan village.

Farmers pack freshly picked beans and peas into sacks for transport to local markets in Manhenuan village, Xishunagbanna, China.

Farmers pack freshly picked beans and peas into sacks for transport to local markets.

Farmers load freshly picked beans and peas onto a motorcycle cart for transport to local markets in Manhenuan village, Xishunagbanna, China.

Farmers load freshly picked beans and peas onto a motorcycle cart for transport to local markets in Manhenuan village.

But at the same time, as we watched the workers sweat under the weight of the beans, it was obvious that this was not easy work – either physically or financially. As always, we had to remind ourselves not to judge the quality of the lives of others based on romanticized notions of simpler times.

Following a dirt road for a few kilometres, we reached the centre of Manhenuan town and immediately realized that the community was already on its way to following in the footsteps of the Minority Park. Multiple construction crews and 70 tonne excavators were busily tearing up the small roads and preparing them for paving. Building sites were everywhere, and the extent of the bamboo scaffolding indicated that the new structures would almost certainly dwarf the existing ones.

“Soon a new bridge will be built and it will allow tourists to come here more easily,” Yan Ying said. 52 years old and sporting a magnificent Soviet-style winter hat, Yan explained that Manhenuan was preparing to follow the example of the Dai across the Lancang and convert itself into a tourist attraction. “Many things are changing.”

Yan Ying, 52, stands in front of his home in Manhenuan, Xishuangbanna, China. With the financial success of the nearby Dai minority cultural village at Olive Dam, residents of Manhenuan are trying to open their village up to tourism as well.

Yan Ying, 52, stands in front of his home in Manhenuan.

A woman walks past her home in Manhenuan village, Xishuangbanna, China.  With the financial success of the nearby Dai minority cultural village at Olive Dam, residents of Manhenuan are trying to open their village up to tourism as well.

A woman walks past her home in Manhenuan village.

Currently living in a small makeshift shack with his wife and daughters, Yan had torn down his house in order to build a more modern structure in its place. “I thought about building a traditional style house, but I decided to use bricks so I could rent out the rooms to tourists,” he said.

When we asked him several loaded questions, trying to gauge if he felt any anger about the immanent commercialization of his village, he didn’t express any personal misgivings. “I don’t own any land, and since there is none available to buy, tourists will be the best way for me to earn money to give to my children.”

“Some people are arguing with the company,” he admitted after continued probing, “They think we aren’t being paid enough. But for me it’s good.”

A construction crew builds a new road in Manhenuan village, Xishuangbanna, China. With the financial success of the nearby Dai minority cultural village at Olive Dam, residents of Manhenuan are trying to open their village up to tourism as well.

A construction crew builds a new road in Manhenuan village.

As we left Manhenuan, we couldn’t help but feel saddened by the knowledge that the little village would probably be unrecognizable if we returned in five years. But at the same time, it was more than understandable that Yan preferred the thought of his daughters working in an air-conditioned hotel instead of labouring in a sweltering bean field.

For better or for worse, the modern world would march on. We could only hope that in the process Dai traditions would not become just another packaged culture for the convenient consumption of those who could afford the price of admission.

A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, China, Environmental, The Mekong River Also tagged , , , , |

Entering China: Where the Mekong Ends

Evening in the city of Jinghong Xishuangbanna, Yunan, China.

Evening in the city of Jinghong.

A cold grey drizzle greeted us as we stepped off the plane at Jinghong international airport, the capital city of the Xishuangbanna autonomous prefecture and the gateway to southwestern China. Despite a temperature of around 15 degrees Celsius, after months of tracing the Mekong river through the tropical heat of Southeast Asia, the chill bit through to our bones and we scrambled to pull jackets and scarves out of our luggage.

Our Mandarin speaking friend and travel companion, Yan, was waiting in the arrival hall. Possessing undergraduate and masters degrees in journalism, she was also a skilled photographer and her spoken English rivalled our own. We were in good hands.

A cold rain falls on downtown Jinghong, Xishuangbanna, Yunan, China.

A cold rain falls on downtown Jinghong.

Before long we were bundled into a car and speeding along immaculate highways into the heart of the city. Having never worked in China before, we were simultaneously exhilarated and anxious about the prospect of what was to come.

The End of the Mekong

When we got our first glimpse of the river in Jinghong, it took a moment to process the fact that we were no longer looking at the Mekong. The Lancang river, as it is called in China, was physically the same body of water we had been following for nearly a year, but the change in name signalled that we had entered into a different (and the final) phase of the journey. And as we would learn over the course of our time in China, in many important ways this was a very different river to the sluggish waterway we had come to know so well.

A woman crosses a bridge spanning the Lancang (Mekong) in Xishuangbanna, Yunan, China.

A woman crosses a bridge spanning the Lancang.

From atop an impressive cable-stayed bridge that spanned the Lancang to connect the two halves of Jinghong, we stopped to watch the river pass beneath. Cargo vessels pulled in and out of a nearby port, transporting trade goods to and from Laos to the south, while huge leisure ships drifted on the currents. These floating restaurants were some of the largest ships we had yet seen on our travels, further reinforcing that China’s relationship with the river was unique.

The swarms of water taxis that plied the floating markets in Vietnam were absent, and the omnipresent wooden fishing boats that dotted the river throughout Cambodia and Laos were nowhere to be seen. Even the water’s colour had changed perceptibly from the murky brown of the lower Mekong basin to a more pronounced blue that flowed with surprising speed.

A floating restaurant and leisure ship floats down the Lancang (Mekong) in Xishuangbanna, Yunan, China.

A floating restaurant and leisure ship floats down the Lancang.

Traffic crosses a bridge spanning the Lancang (Mekong) in Xishuangbanna, Yunan, China.

Traffic crosses a bridge spanning the Lancang.

For the roughly 2000 km we had still to travel before reaching the river’s source on the Tibetan plateau, we would not see the Mekong again as we knew it.

A People’s River

As we walked along the banks of the Lancang, one thing felt familiar; the river served as a public gathering space; a place to socialize, exercise, and enjoy.

Restaurants, bars, and coffee shops overlooked a well maintained stone pathway, which in turn overlooked small communal farm plots that locals used, rent free, to grow vegetables and bananas. Joggers made use of the long, straight track, and more than a few times we noticed people walking backwards at full speed – a practice said to have originated in ancient China – which while supposedly being very effective at targeting seldom used muscles, was nearly impossible to watch with a straight face.

Tourists and locals gather along the Lancang (Mekong) river in Jinghong, Xishuangbanna, China.

Tourists and locals gather along the Lancang (Mekong) river in Jinghong.

Tourists and locals gather along the Lancang (Mekong) river in Xishuangbanna, China.

Tourists and locals gather along the Lancang.

Further along we left the water’s edge, lured to a small park by the sound of birdsong. Dozens of small cages hung from the trees that lined the public space and were inhabited each by a solitary huamei – a small Chinese thrush-sized bird most similar to a North American robin, but made distinctive by its spectacle-shaped eye markings. Groups of men stood in clusters, appreciating the birds according to some criteria that we did not understand, smoking furiously as they listened to their song. While the birds were certainly beautiful and the cages perfectly crafted from painted wood, seeing the jittery imprisoned animals gave us little joy.

Caged songbirds in a public park in Xishuangbanna, China.

Caged songbirds in a public park.

Singing birds hand from trees in their cages in a public park in Xishuangbanna, China.

Singing birds hand from trees in their cages in a public park.

It wasn’t long before we started to attract considerable attention. Though Xishuangbanna was a popular destination for Chinese tourists, we hadn’t yet seen another foreign visitor, and the locals seemed excited to chat. Before we knew what was happening we were drawn into a group of men who asked us standard questions – where did we come from? How did we like China? – before thrusting large bamboo water pipes into our hands.

A cigarette was wedged into a small spout at the base of the pipe, and with much effort and a massive amount of lung power we were encouraged to haul repeatedly on the tube until we were coughing out great clouds of smoke. Though not unbearable, the experience was by no means pleasant, and made all the more difficult by the fact that our unshaven faces made it impossible to form a tight seal around the mouth of the pipe. After we each finished and entire cigarette in this fashion, lightheaded and dizzy, the men immediately tried to restart the process. Only by distracting them with our cameras did we manage to escape additional rounds.

A man smokes tobacco from a water pipe in a public park in Xishuangbanna, China.

A man smokes tobacco from a water pipe in a public park.

Fleeing to a nearby stone pier that extended a hundred meters into the Lancang, we noticed a pair of men emerging from the river. Though the air temperature was chilly by our standards, the water was nearly freezing, and we approached the men to compliment them on their toughness. “This isn’t cold,” one of them said proudly. “Where I come from [north of Beijing], it is much colder than this.” Wearing nothing but a skimpy bathing suit, he rolled a cigarette from loose tobacco he said he’d brought from his home province. Bundled as we were in thick fleece and thermal under layers, we felt decidedly un-tough.

A man lights a cigarette after swimming in the Lancang (Mekong) river in Xishuangbanna, China.

A man lights a cigarette after swimming in the Lancang (Mekong) river.

As the sun set we made our way to a stony beach where people were gathering to enjoy the evening light. Some waded into the water to take selfies, while others played with their children or talked on the phone.

One particularly friendly group of tourists who were skipping stones across the Lancang shouted an enthusiastic ni hao (hello) and beckoned us over. Once again we were reminded that temperature was relative: “We’ve been here for more than one month. We come here for the warmth and to get away from winter!”

Tourists gather along the Lancang (Mekong) river in Xishuangbanna, Yunan, China.

Tourists gather along the Lancang.

Tourists and locals gather along the Lancang (Mekong) river in Xishuangbanna, China.

Tourists and locals gather along the Lancang (Mekong) river in Jinghong.

While we had left the Mekong behind to start our journey up the Lancang, in one way at least China was consistent with the other countries we had traveled through – be it known as the Mekong or Lancang, fast flowing or slow, blue or brown, the river attracted people. Regardless of name or geography, people were drawn to its banks.

A River’s Tail is a multi-year collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.

Posted in A River's Tail, Blog, China, Environmental, The Mekong River, Water Also tagged , , , , , |

What is A River’s Tail?

A farmer tends to his crops on Boeung Tumpun (Lake Tumpun), in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

A farmer tends to his crops on Boeung Tumpun (Lake Tumpun), in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Five months ago I decided to take a break from assignment photography to travel up Cambodia’s Tonle Sap river in a past-its-prime wooden fishing boat. At the time the idea was to step back from the constant pressure to produce and publish news stories in order to enjoy travel for travel’s sake – something that, despite having been on the road for at least five months of 2014, I hadn’t done in many years.

Several months later, when an innovative non-profit organization approached us about the possibility of expanding the trip to cover the entirety of the Mekong River through five countries, no one was more surprised than me.

Since I’ve already written at length on my personal motivations for undertaking this project, I wanted to instead take a moment to explain the more practical aspects of the plan and to publicly answer some of the questions that have been a reoccurring theme in my inbox of late – what exactly is A River’s Tail?

First, the name itself (which took us longer to come up with than I’d like to admit) is a play on the ubiquitous A River’s Tale, which seems to be among the the most favoured of handles for riparian narratives. While most such accounts, for obvious logistical and navigational reasons, begin at the Mekong’s source on the Tibetan plateau and follow its currents southeast towards the South China Sea, we will do the opposite. Since China’s industrial and economic decisions (in the form of investments and construction) have the most direct impact on the river’s future, and because they are the stewards of its source, we decided to leave the Chinese portion of the Mekong for last.

We hope that by first telling the stories of the 60-odd million people downstream, who have historically relied on the river’s giving floods for subsistence, the stories of those in the nation who seem to control the Mekong’s future will be all the more poignant. Hence, by starting at the river’s mouth in Vietnam where it is known as the River of Nine Dragons and backtracking, we will be following the Dragon/River’s tail. (We experimented with titles such as Chasing the Dragon’s Tail, but abandoned them early on as to avoid being confused with opium tourists.)

So What is this Project?

At its most basic level, A River’s Tail could be described as slow-paced multimedia travel journalism. Multimedia, for non-industry types, means we will be producing photography, videography, and writing – selecting and combining the different mediums in various ways to emphasize their respective strengths as storytelling devices.

Over the course of ten months, with time off between each country to make sense of the thousands of images and video footage, our team of three will travel more that four thousand kilometres through Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and China. Though this project initially started with us self-driving ourselves in our own wooden fishing boat named Yolandi, this time the logistics and scope of the plan will force us to use a variety of transportation. We looked into the plausibility of bringing Yolandi along for the entirety of the trip, but quickly realized that international borders and their respective import regulations, our complete lack of anything resembling an official document of ownership, the presence of river rapids and waterfalls (and the fact that our team, including a translator, has doubled in size making seating and gear storage in such a small boat unrealistic for a long period), made self driving an unrealistic proposition. We will bring Yolandi out of retirement for portions of the Cambodian leg of A River’s Tail, but for the most part she will stay where she is, serving as a children’s bedroom for a river dwelling family in Phnom Penh.

Starting in less than a week on the coast of Vietnam and ending amongst the mountains of China in December, the project will produce a massive quantity of material – dozens of photo essays in both colour (me) and black and white (Gareth Bright), written articles, video features, and behind the scenes content to give a more personal view into our working process. For the sake of keeping our readership supplied with regular fresh content, we will be withholding all material for the first several months. This means that once we start publishing (mid-late June), we will be able to draw on a large cache of content to keep the narrative updating at much shorter intervals. Coming from news backgrounds, this will be the first time any of us have worked this way. We’ve already produced several video and photo based features and it has been a test of patience not to publish them publicly, but we’re confident that this approach will make for a more engaging audience experience in the long run.

This will be the most ambitious and likely difficult thing any of us have attempted to date, and we’re really looking foreword to making the content public in June. In the mean time, our brand new Instagram account will be actively updated with dispatches from the road, so you can follow @ariverstail to experience the journey as we do. Or head over to www.ariverstail.com and enter your email address to get updates from the project the moment they are live.

Until then, the river beckons.

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