Two weeks ago I found myself back in Shidong, in the heart of Miao country in Guizhou Province, at the market they hold there by the river. I didn’t plan on writing about it again, because I wrote about it last September when the market was full of indigo sellers.
It’s a market with seductive colour and energy though, absolutely one of the best rural markets in China and blessed with a stunning location.
You arrive in the fraught and dusty main street of Shidong, packed with cars and motorbikes and minivans, horns blaring, and wend your way behind the street into one of many crowded, dark, cool side lanes where there will be someone selling brightly coloured plastic basins next to a man with a bamboo pen full of noisy ducks, and then suddenly the darkness gives way to sunlight and the long jade-green Qingshui river opens up before you, with its Shidong-side cobblestone banks lined with hundreds of coloured tents and thousands of people, and on the other side a tiny village climbs the hill from the water’s edge, connected by a narrow suspension bridge.
People come and go by boat, from villages up- and downstream. It’s delightful, but more importantly it is the main source of income for many local families who sell their wares at the market.
But it seems the market might be under threat, something I didn’t discover until literally a few hours ago when I was researching this blog post, and so I became convinced of the need to write about it again. More on that below.
On the surface though, the market was busier than ever, being the frantic final market day before Chinese New Year and full of everything one might need for a Spring Festival celebration.
The cobbled river bank was laid with hundreds of red paper chunlian 春联 door decorations, held down against the wind with rocks and painted with calligraphy couplets conveying one’s best wishes for the year ahead – health, happiness, and prosperity.
Open air barbers, five in a row, had set up nearby so men could have their hair cut before New Year, thus avoiding an unlucky haircut in the first month of the Year of the Horse.
One and all were buying chickens and ducks for the New Year’s feast, along with bunches of lucky extra-long chillies and sweet treats like honey on the comb.
Some, like this family, had all their Spring Festival needs loaded in their wooden boat – a box of firecrackers, some incense and candles to offer to the ancestors, and about twenty-five new stools for all the expected guests.
Buying new bowls was common too, both for eating and for drinking rice wine, neatly tied in stacks of ten. Always ten – I’d love to know why.
The Miao ladies of Shidong, lovers of silver adornment and jewellery, were crowding the silver sellers with New Year sales.
It was at this point, as I was photographing a dead cow being picturesquely butchered by the riverside, that I realised I was being followed. There were two men, one with a camera, photographing me photographing the butcher, and another one. They were youngish, smallish, not very threatening looking, and wearing a ubiquitous countryside uniform of soft shoes, perma-press trousers and zip-up jackets, both black, one of them made from artificial leather.
They looked nervous and shy when I caught them spying on me, and seemed to be metaphorically poking each other in the ribs saying:
“You talk to her”
“No, you talk to her”
“No, you first”
Until I couldn’t take their discomfort any more and said hello in Chinese.
It’s my favourite moment in any conversation, when the other person suddenly realises they can communicate with me, this stranger, this foreigner.
“Hello” said Mr Artificial Leather, smiling very tentatively. “We’ve been following you.”
“We don’t see so many tourists here. Well, a few. Hmmm. Not that many. I’m from the local government. Can I ask you a few questions about your experience in Shidong market?”
There’s a curve ball I wasn’t expecting.
“Sure” I said, and put my camera away. This could take a while.
“So, my first question is…” He flipped out a notebook and seemed to be rifling through the pages looking for the question. The other guy held on to the camera awkwardly.
“Oh, here it is. Okay. What is your name?”
I told him my Chinese name, and he told me what a nice name it was. I told him my English name too, but from upside-down I couldn’t tell if he wrote it down in English.
“And what are you doing here?” This question sounded innocuous, and it probably was, but he was a local government official.
“Just travelling, taking photos. It’s very colourful here!” I said, pointing to the rows of tents nearby.
“This is your first visit to Shidong?” he asked.
I considered for a moment, trying to remember. “It’s my fourth visit I think. My fifth visit to Guizhou.”
He was surprised. And pleased. He rifled a few more pages and looked for the next question. It must have been important because he asked the other guy to take a photo of us doing the interview, but the other guy struggled with the camera, and I felt bad for him.
“So…when you come to Shidong next time, which of the following would enhance your tourist experience?” He paused. “Ethnic dancing? Singing and Music? Discount vouchers? Gifts?”
Now I did feel sorry for him, because I can say in all honesty that none of those things would have made the market any more colourful or more alive and vibrant than it already was. In fact, they might do something irrevocably bad to it by trying to attract Chinese tourists to it with gimmicks.
“Actually, none of those” I said. “I just like to experience the local culture as it is, especially on Market Day.” He looked really disappointed in me.
“Not even dancing?” he asked.
“OK, maybe just a little bit of dancing. But you know in my country we have nothing at all like this market. This is very special.”
He gave me a look that said he didn’t quite believe me, either about the my country not having markets like this, or the bit about it being special. His look seemed to convey that the sooner he could clear space along the river for ethnic dancing and music displays and give away discount vouchers, the better.
The other guy took photos of us all together, then someone took photos of all three of us together, and that concluded the interview.
I thought nothing more of it for the last two weeks, until just now I googled ‘Shidong tourism’ and an article came up on the Guizhou government website explaining that Shidong is to be one of ‘One Hundred Demonstration Towns’ in Guizhou. Oh no.
According to their research, Shidong is an ideal location for this development because:
‘Miao people account for 98% of the local population. So, the town is a place where Miao people highly gather. Shidong Town not only has graceful and charming landscape scenery, but also has unique and rich national customs. In addition, it’s the most representative Miao region and is a place where national intangible cultural heritage gather.’
They’re looking for 680 million yuan joint venture investments to build:
‘special architectural complex and special leisure hotels and venues (read – KTV and spas), sell cultural crafts, develop a series of market-oriented national culture display platform, build 500 buildings with Miao nationality characteristics, and create a world-class Miao nationality art town.’
My heart broke, then fell on the floor in a hundred pieces. It will be a Chinese Disneyland with Miao characteristics. It happened in Kashgar. It happened in Beijing. It happened in Hangzhou. And Lijiang, Shanghai, Pingyao, and Qufu. Those are just the ones I remember off the top of my head.
They will destroy Shidong, and rebuild it as a fake version of itself, with homogenous ‘cultural crafts’ and concrete buildings made to look like the wooden structures they have replaced. It was all a terribly, terribly sad read.
As sweet as Mr Artificial Leather was, I hope no one comes to his great big fake Miao Shidong party.
So get yourself to Shidong right now before it’s all gone.