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Spring Festival at Shidong Market – Will It All Be Gone This Time Next Year?

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”
“You”
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.”
I smiled.
“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.
  • Darrell Lew

    Nice post. I think the #10 is about rebirth and believe that it is a “Yin” number for it being an even number. Not sure the correlation to bowls though … but then again “shi” is death, so I’m totally confused!

    • nanchanglu

      Thanks Darrell – I know you can’t have four bowls, being unlucky. Si for four is the homophone for si for death, so I’m living precariously and dangerously through my 44th year, expecting disaster to strike at any moment 😉

  • http://www.ferretingoutthefun.com/ Heather

    They do like to ruin a good thing, don’t they? That’s why I hated Old Town Lijiang so much. It felt like Chinese Disneyland and totally unauthentic. I wish so much they could realize how very special these pockets of their country are – and then leave them alone!

    • nanchanglu

      At least in Lijiang they had a good excuse for rebuilding, thanks to the earthquake. I kept shaking my head and thinking – is this what Chinese tourists really want? Really? Are you sure? Soon enough they may realise that every place they’ve visited has had an odd homogeneity to it.

  • budgetjan

    Very Sad. But I understand that they do not realize what it is that tourists are looking for in China. I do hope they find out before they destroy it.

    • nanchanglu

      I think what Chinese tourists and western tourists look for in a destination is very different. We’re big on authenticity and they’re big on spectacle, but I agree with you – they may destroy a great deal in the name of tourism.

      • budgetjan

        How silly of me I was only thinking of western style tourists not the millions of chinese. I can see that they would be mainly concerned with what chinese people like! You are right we had better get there soon. 🙁

        • nanchanglu

          Yes…the Chinese domestic tourist is truly a force to be reckoned with – they like to travel short, sharp, and high-impact, getting the most out of their very short leisure time.

  • http://chinaelevatorstories.com chinaelevatorstories

    Great article with even greater pictures! It really does look like a very special place. And it hurts to read that it might be made into an heartless tourist spot in only a short period of time.

    • nanchanglu

      Thanks so much! I’m still hoping they can’t pull together enough investors to make it happen but the early signs are already there – the old dancing circle, used for festivals, has been razed to make way for…something. 500 buildings with Miao nationality characteristics perhaps?

  • Jean

    Agree with the last line and think it applies to most country side traveling in China. : (

    • nanchanglu

      Me too. Money and wisdom rarely meet on the road to development.

  • ordinary malaysian

    Stunning series of pictures that you may never get to see again if the local government plan to ‘develop’ the place goes through. I believe it will and like all things in China, the change will come speedy Gonzales style. What they should do though, is to bring about ‘development’ that does not destroy the the Miao culture and will leave the place largely recognizable as is – not a touristy replicate that lacks life and authenticity except in the most superficial sense! However it may be too much to expect things to remain as are, especially in a huge developing country like China which has to what it can to uplift hundreds of millions economically as quickly as possible or risk collapse. Just hope that they are wise in how they do it.

    • nanchanglu

      I would understand if the development would directly benefit Miao people – that would be worthwhile. But in these developments the beneficiaries are often businessmen and women who are not of the local ethnic group, and profits are diverted away from the community rather than back into it. Jobs are definitely created, but at what cultural cost? Every person I spoke to in other places where this has happened regretted moving forward so quickly and losing autonomy in the process.

      • ordinary malaysian

        I get your point. What the authorities should look to is how to uplift the economic status of the local Miao community without destroying their culture and way of life. Development that only benefit the business community and the politically connected while marginalising the local Miao community was not what I meant. So much I think was intimated in my comment. But we just can’t expect things to always remain status quo though that may be nice to tourists, armchair ones like me included nevertheless. Especially not for a country like China which still has hundreds of millions of its people who are poor. I was thinking a holistic approach to development that benefits everyone without destroying the beauty of the place nor the indigenous culture. Maybe that is too much to expect of the authorities. But tourists can’t expect things to always remain how they want them to be. Any failure is the authorities’, not development per se.

        • nanchanglu

          Yes, totally! I’m actually in total agreement with you – China is a vast, moving, surging country with great capacity for change, and at great speed. We wish for things to remain in status quo, to preserve culture and beauty at a point in time, but that is impossible in any country in the world. Time moves forward. I think my real worry was that this community would fall into the same trap I’ve seen all over China – their eagerness for economic development inadvertently destroys what made their community unique, and the economic advantages soon disappear. Maintaining uniqueness while moving forward – that is the real challenge for the local authorities and community elders. Thanks as always for your thought-provoking comments and discussion!

  • Robyn

    Your words and pictures take me back to my most awesome day in Shidong. A vibrant, dynamic and colourful day full of culture and the friendliest of Miao people.That is the place for tourists to see, not some manufactured experience. My heart breaks along with yours if the spell of Shidong is broken….it is perfect as it is.

    • nanchanglu

      Robyn I totally agree with you – the Miao local culture stands strongly enough on its own two feet without the commodification seen in other communities (the Mosu people of Lugu Lake spring to mind – the local women all wear their ‘authentic’ ethnic dress tied on over the top of their jeans and T-shirts as they row tourists around the lake. But the place is stunning on its own, free of gimmicks).

  • Turtlestravel

    Oh, the question, “ethnic dancing? discount vouchers? gifts?” While traveling in China, we definitely felt the difference in what Chinese tourists were looking for vs others. It does seem to be all about the spectacle. While we can’t stop time and freeze a local culture in the past, I hope they are able to find a way to do something beneficial for the Miao people rather than create a fake showplace where the money goes back to the businessmen charged with creating the platform.

    • nanchanglu

      Yes! I’m still trying to get to the bottom of the question of what Chinese travellers are looking for, versus what is presented to them at a destination. We’re still seeing the ‘first wave’ of domestic tourism in China and it’s interesting (and disconcerting) that the experience for them is so homogenous. Many domestic Chinese tourists are unsophisticated in the ways of tourism as a business, but as they travel more, they will become more discerning and this kind of ‘one size fits all’ tourism will, I hope, die a natural death.

  • kristy @ My Little Space

    The perfect ten meaning a full table of 10 persons and also brings the meaning of a perfect family reunion and the coming year will be perfect in health, wealth and so on.

  • Gina

    What a swell of emotions this gives me—but that’s something I experienced a lot as my husband and I traveled in Guizhou (and after we returned home from China). How incredibly lucky I now feel to have actually gotten there before it’s lost to “progress.” If only there was a wider and deeper understanding of the treasures—economic and cultural—that are being endangered and/or wiped away.

    • nanchanglu

      Gina – you are lucky indeed to have seen Guizhou as it is, such a magical place. I was just there again two weeks ago for the Sisters’ Meal Festival – spectacular! Did you have a chance to see it?

      • Gina

        No, sadly! I’ll have to look forward to your posts about it as a consolation. 🙂 Sisters’ Meal was outside the timeframe in which we could travel. We ended up going to the lusheng festival in Zhouxi, at least, and took in the dances, bullfights and snacks. I have to say, Guizhou was a handful for us as China first-timers (non-Mandarin-speaking, to boot) traveling independently/without a guide, but for all my mixed emotions, I’m coming to understand that I will look back on it as one of the richest travel experiences I’ve ever had. Just layers upon layers upon layers! It seems like every day, my urge to go back gets a little bit stronger.