Sunday, July 29, 2007

Impression: Lugu Lake

The Lugu Lake on the Sichuan and Yunnan border was a bumpy 7 hour bus ride away from Lijiang. Relatively few tourists visit there, and those who do, usually take the two-day tour arriving at the lake around 4pm and leaving the next morning back to Lijiang at 10am. Most of these tourists stayed in Luoshui, Falling Water, the most developed village around the lake, for staged bon-fire parties and a peek at the much-hyped "last surviving matrichal culture in the world!" With the supposed promiscuity of the pretty Mosuo women, a single guy just might get lucky and receive an invitation to a private chamber for a "walking marriage" at night.

Daba, the owner of the hostel on the Lige peninsula where I stayed, said it was simply not true. "The so-called walking marriage is actually serious for the Mosuos, he said. Even though the couple in love dont own or owe each other anything, that doesnt mean they switch partners all the time. Relationships tend to be long term, and when the couple no longer love each other, they part ways.

In fact, he continued, this system is far superior to the ones you have in Han regions. Theres no haggling over child custody or financials in case of a breakup. Everything stays with the maternal family.

Daba was proud of his tradition, yet he had legally married according to Chinese law. He had attended university in Beijing, and had his first job in the local government, so a legal marriage helped him appear less minority. But he stressed he had never used his marriage certificate, and though he helped out with his wifes family, it was his maternal family to which he held the utmost loyalty.

Dabas Inn seemed the last old structure standing in the Lige Village, the village closest to Luoshui. All around the lake villages were undergoing intense transformation, the fierceness of which rivaled that of the Olympic-frenzied Beijing. The Mosuos live with their big extended maternal families. Now every family in Lige has a two-storey inn standing in front of the old family quarter. Most of these inns were built by Han people who migrated here and leased out land from the locals.

My people…” Daba sighed and shook his head. They just want the 50,000 yuan a year from the Han businessman. They dont know how to protect their culture. And the county government is not providing any guidance. The Han people come over here, build an inn, and then start selling our culture like fast food. How could this be sustainable?

To be fair, the local government had implemented strict preservation rules: every family and every inn must have a sewage line running to the nearby treatment facility, which kept the lake water crystal clear; every new building had to conform to the local architecture style (unfortunately, like construction elsewhere in China, all the new faux-traditional buildings look exactly the same). Most of all, the locals were happy. They welcomed the tourists and the Han businessmen who had a much better sense in running the inns.

But Daba was most concerned with the culture itself. There are so many beautiful aspects about our culture, he said, but the Han tourists only knew of the walking marriage, and even that was mostly misinformed. They knew nothing about our religion or our language. The central government itself mistakenly grouped us under the Naxis in 1950. We need to learn to show the outsiders the real Mosuo. Daba was one of the organizers of a local cultural preservation foundation; but no fund was coming in.

Unsurprisingly, few tourists seemed to care. During my three nights staying at the lake, Dabas one-hundred-year-old building had the lowest occupancy every night. The rooms were dark, the communal shower rudimentary, and there were bed bugs. And Daba was the most morose among all the inn keepers. Tourists wanted bigger rooms, hopefully with private bath.

Those tourists, Daba snickered, they are not true travelers. True travelers, like those foreign backpackers, they love the authenticity of my place.

Authenticity was what attracted Old Wang to the lake as well. The next day I hiked along the lake towards the Grass Seaa beautiful expansive marshland on the Sichuan side of the lakeand had lunch at Old Wangs guest inn. Old Wang and his wife had several successful businesses in Manchuria. They loved traveling, and a year ago when they traveled to the Lugu Lake, they decided to stay. The people were authentic. The natural scenery was beautiful beyond description. They asked their relatives to take over their businesses, and they built an inn and stayed.

Thats at least the official version of the story from Old Wang, a theme I had heard repeatedly in Yunnanwearied Han people found inspirations from the scenery and the peole in Yunnan and decided to stay.

It was right before noon. There was only me and Old Wang in the dining area which had huge windows overlooking the marshland. Old Wang told me stories of the local Mosuos, stories he claimed that the Mosuos themselves had forgotten. The rice porridge tasted great after a good mornings hike. Flies were bombarding us despite the burning incenses. It was a enchanting breezy day by the lake.

Old Wang said he didnt care about money. He just loved the tranquility. I said I noticed that the Sichuan side of the lake had built nice asphalt roadsunlike the bumpy stone roads on the Yunnan side of the lakewhich made me worry a bit that the Sichuan government was intent on bringing hordes of tourists in. He said thats not the end of itan airport was being planned and supposedly would go into operation by 2010.

That would be the end of the lake, I lamented. He said no worry, wed have moved to a different tranquil place by then.

Then immediately, he started bragging about how he turned a profit after only 5 months. He was thinking of building a chicken pen and raise tons of chicken. He would charge tourists to shoot the chicken with real rifles and cook for them immediately afterwards. He could get the chicks for X yuan a piece, and charge XX yuan a piece to shoot them when they grew up. He would end up with XXX yuan profit with XXXX chickens in the pen.

I was silent for a beat, then I asked, Wouldnt that ruin the tranquility?

Oh, he said, by then I would have moved on to another piece. I would let someone else manage the place and collect the money for me.

That night Daba invited his friends over for a drink. They were three young Han businessmen who were loud and friendly and loved to drink. They were building a fancy inn with bathrooms looking out at the lake in the village. Three young Chinese tourists and I joined them. We told stories, drank barley liquor and sang songs. Daba said he had begun contemplating some renovation work, perhaps repainting the entire building and remodeling the two big rooms to add in private bathrooms. His friends all said its about time. I concurredafter three nights, the bed bugs at Dabas place had really started bugging me.

The gentle waves of the lake hit the banks as the night’s merriment went on, and stars slowly came out until they filled the entire sky. I was happy being half drunk and in Yunnan. It was not my place to lament the encroachment of Chinese TV and American soap operas in the Mosuo village. It was not my place to criticize the travelers who want comfort and the innkeepers who want to make some money by catering to that comfort. It would be simple condescension if I were to note the irony of the Mosuos who had traveled far away from home wanting to preserve the tradition that the true locals seem indifferent to leave behind. The forces of the people coming and going, of them chasing the next fad destination, of locals marketing themselves to outsiders, of conservators striving to conserve and radicals fighting to shed their skins; the changes, the unstoppable changes, the scarily rapid changes sweeping everywhere—Mosuo, Yunnan, China, and everywhere else—they are beyond my comprehension and judgment. I can only observe, it seems, and appreciate the fragile scenery and people while they last.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Impression: Lijiang

No, I'm not talking about the Zhang Yijiang extravaganza at the foot of the Jade Dragon Mountain, which, even though I've heard many great things about, I refused to pay to watch as a matter of principle.

What I'm talking about is this fantasy of Lijiang, as this tranquil backpacker heaven. At least, according to my Chinese friends, a place to rest and rejuvenate.

Many amateur photographers scavenged the Old Town for a perfectly misleading photo befitting the image of Lijiang--cobble stones, deserted street, old women in minority clothes. But the truth is, the town is mobbed by tourists, most of the buildings in the town center have been converted into guest houses and restaurants and stores, and the main street at night, full of bars and dancing Mosou women in bright costumes, is overflown with loud disco and young people yelling their hearts out, encouraged by alcohol.

The only thing that could have saved Lijiang for me, during my first day there, was the Prague Cafe. Outside of the cafe sitting on the sidewalk were a group of bohemian looking friends who played guitar and drums and sang all afternoon. It appeared rather alternative and cool in the over-commercialized atmosphere of Lijiang.

Inside of the cafe, I struck up a conversation with two Taiwanese housewives who were traveling together. When the group took a break outside, one of the members came in to talk to the two women. They chitchat for a long time, the same cliches of how great Lijiang is, how the vibe nourishes the soul, etc.

Finally, the pudgy round-faced guy sitting at the next table could not help it anymore. He said, "I just can't help jumping in. But don't you think your lifestyle can't last forever? How do you make money? I would think you should make enough money first--in fact, make a lot of money first--before you spend your days hanging around and singing. You look like a full grownup now. Aren't you worried about the future? Don't you think it's kinda irresponsible living? How much money can you collect in one afternoon anyway?"

The guy was a businessman from Wenzhou, one of the most entrepreneurial area in China. He owned his own factories and he hadn't taken a vacation for years.

The rest of us laughed. The singer explained--it's not about money; it's about the free-wheeling lifestyle; it's about doing things we enjoy doing; it's called real living; free living; etc. etc.

But the businessman insisted--you have to have some economic foundation, right? How do you support yourself, rent, food, and what not?

The singer said we don't need that much to live on; Lijiang is cheap; and we have good friends. All is fine. Don't you worry, my man. We made a choice. This is our life.

The businessman was not convinced, but he gave up his Marxist lecture on superstructure and economic basis. I joked he sounded exactly like my mother.

After a while the band resumed playing. The businessman went outside and from the look of it, tried very hard to fit in, to enjoy the free-wheeling music.

Back in the room, the singer started talking about his plan of building a guest house to the two Taiwanese housewives. Yes there are gazillion guest houses in Lijiang already. But this one will be different. It will be grand, immaculate, decorated in high style by his girlfriend who's studying overseas presently. It would cost a couple of millions of renminbi, the whole thing, but the business will take off, for sure.

The singer had a pony tail, a healthily tan (not the peasant tan) and a handsome face. When he left to join his band, the two women whispered to me, "We come everyday to see him. How handsome he is!"

They asked why I was there in Lijiang. I said I was taking my last trip before going back to corporate, freedom loving and entirely anti-my-mother's-teaching as I was. I said I was going back to build some more economic basis before my next attempt at the superstructure.

Lijiang has the weird capability to bring out the cliches in people.

So I left the next morning, wondering at the same time if I'd fallen into the cliche of searching for that off-beaten track a la the Lonely Planet.

Thursday, July 19, 2007


A week ago everything was ok, over, finito; a week later for various reasons, the chains have to be pulled tighter again. Just like that.

Life in China has definitely been more interesting than back in the US, not the least because it's oo often like an arbitrary joke that I don't know how else to react, except to laugh.

What great misfortune of you having to be Chinese?!

Oh well, I am Chinese. I'm stuck with it, all of it, and there' s no running away from any of it.

To see the sick humor in a rotten situation and continue to be amused, I think, is one of the few survival skills left for the Chinese. For the game is not over, and the show must go on.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Kevin Bacon's Dance

Yesterday afternoon I sent email and sms messages to my friends, inviting them for a drink out at night. The excuse? "I'm finally officially free!"

One friend asked, "What do you mean? Did you break up with your boyfriend?"

Another wrote back also in confusion, "Didn't you just take a vacation in Yunnan from your unemployment in Beijing? How much more free do you need to be?"

The word Freedom indeed invites such easy confusion, which was probably why Freidrich Hayek carefully distinguished four common usages of liberty, or freedom, in his monumental The Constitution of Liberty:
1) "personal" freedom--the state in which a man is not subject to coercion by the arbitrary will of another or others;
2) "political" freedom--the participation of men in the choice of their government, in the process of legislation, and in the control of administration;
3) "inner" freedom--the extent to which a person is guided in his action not by momentary impulse or circumstance;
4) the freedom or power to satisfy our desires.

Indeed on what ground could I be celebrating my freedom?
4) I don't have the freedom to buy all the Apple products I want;
3) I still suffer from crises which, for lack of a more elegant expression, I shall call "existential";
2) Need I say more?
1) Need I say more???

Yet in the meantime, time has progressed. A year ago I was dazed by my sudden freedom from lack of Starbucks lattes, New York Times online and gym access over a long period of time. A year ago I took out the battery of my phone whenever I talked anything "sensitive" (how could I ever have believed that powered-off phones could be used as remote listening devices!). A year ago I listened to Nina Simone singing I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free, over and over.

A year later, life is almost normal. The final official closure of my "case" and the full resumption of personal freedom feels actually anti-climatic, not so dissimilar from the day when I received my US "Green Card." I can go anywhere I want now; and, so what?

I was reminded of the unfree, in everything I read, everywhere I look. I was reminded of shackles, of the bondage even after the breaking of the shackles. Most of all, I was reminded of my bourgeois obsession with the future and my powerlessness at changing any of the present.

But I was also reminded what the cute young Kevin Bacon quoted in Footloose:
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.
Yes, to dance. I'm not one of those who fight to break the shackles. But I can dance. Dance with my shackles. Dance with my bondage after the shackles. Dance to pray. Dance to hope. For in dance, in the ecstasy of dance, I find the unnameable beauty which, for lack of a more elegant expression, I shall call freedom.