After a twenty-two hour train ride from Chengdu province to Kunming, I hopped a 10 hour bus ride from Kunming directly to Tengchong. I had ridden a similar bus three years ago when I came the first time, but Yunnan province has worked hard to improve the roads since. We sailed over the highways and stopped at newly built rest stops with impressive restroom facilities. I had forgotten, however, that once you get towards the far west of Yunnan, you have no choice but to start weaving in and amongst the increasingly tall mountain ranges. Somewhere in the midst of the last three hours of hairpin turns, I made a mental note to add travel notes of this nature to my Evernote log: “Hellish bus ride! Remember to take Dramamine 4 hours in, you dummy!” Not sure how I managed to keep my lunch.
We finally arrived, to my great relief, at the lonely longride bus station in Tengchong city proper just before dusk. From there, the puppeteers had told me to find them in their new location just northwest of the city in Heshun. I hopped a cheap taxi and we drove swiftly out of the city and into the green. Yunnan is so blessed with natural beauty it puts everyone, everyplace and everything else to shame. I’m not exaggerating. I would have been jealous of Yunnan had she attended my high school.
Quickly, we arrived at a beautiful little village nestled at the nape of a large mountain range.
Water rushed between rivers and small lake below, and the sky was lit up with the natural fireworks of a southwestern sunset. Compared with the very nice but predictable city experience I’d had last time, these new digs felt like paradise. We passed some tourist guesthouses and what looked like a host of new construction, but I didn’t think twice about it. I was so happy not to be turning on a bus or stuck in a city somewhere that I went to sleep at the hostel with a smile on my face.
Three years ago, I visited Tengchong for a few weeks. I had met the troupe at the Huanxian Shadow Puppet Conference and had been so impressed with their rough and bold designs that I decided to make the trek down. After my trip, I declared it one of the best and most sustainable situations of any that I had come across in my travels; the government supported most of their work as stewards of Tengchong’s historical culture to leave them time to create new work and continue performing traditionally for their village nearby. They even had some young apprentices who were beginning to master performance techniques and showed interest in beginning puppet making.
The memory of that trip was keeping me optimistic. I figured their move to the tourist area of Heshun was simply following the tourism crowd, but that everything, probably, remained the same more or less.
I awoke with promise the next morning. All I had to do was find the troupe and begin the fun. They had replied to my early communication with short messages like, “Annie, we welcome you!” and “whenever you get here, we are also here!”
As I set off, I realized I was disoriented in this new village. The further I walked, the further I had to reevaluate my understanding of what this paradise was. It was beautiful, for sure, but it was also confusing. Local Baizu minorities were manning much of the food stalls, there were costumed docents in front of the historical temples and there were old folks selling trinkets all along the roadside. But, no one was there. Just me. They looked at me like I was an apparition. They didn’t even try to harass me for my patronage. They just let me pass silently onto the next onlooker. And so it went.
Soon, I got to what was clearly the ‘center’ of this village and here, things became clearer. Modern cafés, jade shops, restaurants and clothing shops lined the small winding streets and cobblestone alleys all the way from the mountain bottom to the water’s edge. The signs began to advertise for the Heshun Ancient Scenic Area. Closer to the base of the village, I spied an expansive parking lot, a main gate and tourist vans by the dozens.
The Heshun Ancient Scenic Area is a new project masterminded by an enterprising Chinese businesswoman who somehow bought visitation rights to the village and developed it for tourism.
The main gate ticket is 80 yuan and gains you entrance to the ‘village’, the shops and a handful of old temples. The main entrance is a confusing layout of shops that look more like museums than anything else. And this is where the shadow puppet shop is.
Although the development is one of the nicest I’ve seen, it’s still a development. It has the soulless quality of the copy. And, worst of all, we visited in the low season of rainy June, making the entire place feel more like a movie set than an active village. The longer we stayed, the creepier it got. I couldn’t help but feel for the earnest trinket sellers and restaurant owners who prepared daily for the sad trickle of guests.
I waited at the empty shadow puppet store for a few minutes before I texted my friends. They were on their way for the 4:30 performance. The troupe of four arrived at 4:27, said their brief ‘hellos’ to me with much grinning; then flicked on the lights and CD player to set up for…Turtle and the Crane. Next up? The story of how Er Kuai (a famed dish of Tengchong) got its name. These were the same shows they’d performed nightly in 2011.
My face dropped as I realized they’ve been performing these shows twice a day, 365 days a year for over three years.
This mistake happens to me often; I assume. It’s a bad habit as an ethnographer. So often I don’t notice the damage it has done until it’s too late. The confidence I had developed for the troupe’s stability in 2011, coupled with the responses I had recently received from the troupe members, had led me to believe the troupe was doing well – maintaining stasis. As I sat through the same two shows, however, with a troupe half the size of what it was, performing in a tourist area in recession, it was clear that Tengchong shadow puppetry had undergone severe changes.
After the show was over, the group’s new leader, Fu Guanguo, her young helper, Qiuju, and a few others headed to tea and dinner. Within an hour, everything was made clear. The troupe’s deal with the government in 2011, their lucrative gig playing to the nightly tourist buses at government-supported restaurants, had dissolved. They then moved the Troupe to the Heshun Ancient Scenic Area, employed as a ‘local Tengchong cultural act’, to enliven the tourist area and help validate that 80 yuan entrance fee. Their job was simply to perform the same shows everyday at 9:30 and 4:30 and if no one came, which they very often didn’t, they didn’t have to perform. With decreased income and almost no audience, the troupe divided.
The main master and his direct descendents, the core of the troupe in 2011, had all returned to ‘real’ jobs in order to provide for their families. Fu Guanguo, her nephew Liu Chaokan, Qiuju and her friend Liu Rong, can afford to keep working as puppeteers because they are not the main income earners in their families. With little income to start with and a tenuous future for the tourist village, innovation and development within the troupe will likely never happen.
I was starting to get that creeping feeling again, one that’d I’d also had in Xi’an when I visited a few weeks back. The decline is happening too fast, the changes too slippery and I can barely keep up with the news of it, let alone the research. But, at that moment, what can you do? I could only take a deep breath, be present and keep moving forward.
Over an incredibly simple dinner of home-cooked pig’s feet stew, fresh local vegetables and my favorite sour tomato sauce, the mood grew quiet and contemplative. All of us, quietly torn between what we want and what is. We parted ways reluctantly and went out into the dark, empty alleyways under a light, warm rain.
Thanks for reading~