The first thing I noticed as we came over the rise was a crowd of people all over the road, most with bowls and chopsticks in hand, eating.
There must have been another two hundred people sitting outdoors at round tables on a terrace in front of a new-looking house. Dozens of motorbikes, the local transport of choice, lined both sides of the road. Was it a wedding? A funeral? Some other kind of celebration?
“It’s a new house party” said our driver. “Very auspicious day for it.”
It was late afternoon, just at that golden hour when the sun is slipping low into the hills and a chill is creeping back into the air from the lengthening shadows. Perfect light for photographers.
My flight had landed in Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou Province
, less than an hour before, and I was travelling to Kaili to do more work on a project involving Miao artisans, a project my husband and I have been working on together for the last half year, when the driver suggested we take the scenic road instead of the highway. Of course, I agreed immediately. Who wouldn’t?
When we reached the house we were already deep into the countryside, in the midst of tiny villages smelling deliciously of woodsmoke and winter.
“Can you stop?” I asked the driver. I thought I might be able to take some photos, as long as the house’s new owner approved and the light lasted.
The house, a two story building facing the road, was painted in white with grey trimming, and festooned with auspicious red ribbons and lanterns. It was built in the simple modern style common to all of rural China – two large rooms on the lower floor for storing farming equipment and produce, with a central staircase leading to the upper floor with bedrooms, a living room, and a kitchen. The flat roof meant that if the family continued to prosper a third floor could be readily added, but for now housed a brand new satellite dish.
The guests, initially a little surprised at seeing a stranger (especially a foreign stranger), soon pointed me in the direction of the home’s owner, a woman my age, who welcomed us like long lost friends, agreed without hesitation to my taking photographs, and insisted with some forcefulness that we stay to eat. When we thanked her for her kind offer but began to decline, she laughed, took me by the elbow and said:
“No, no! You must stay to eat!” and sat us on two empty stools. “Just wait!” she said. “More food is coming soon.”
Around me two hundred men, women and children were at the tail end of what looked to have been a long and tasty meal. Empty red and white enamel platters covered every table, food scraps covered the ground and the rosy flushed faces of the guests were reflected in rows of empty beer and baijiu bottles. Cigarettes were being smoked, jokes were being told, and legs were being stretched.
As we sat, the tables nearest to us began emptying out. Was the party already over?
I sat and watched as two hundred guests took leave of their lady host, two hundred plates were cleared from tables, and countless empty bottles were gathered up and taken away.
It was over. I felt a sense of disappointment – we’d arrived just a little too late.
But then our lady host rushed over and said, full of smiles: “Now the food is coming! Please enjoy yourselves!”
I looked about, confused – the tables had all been cleared and emptied, the guests all gone bar a few stalwarts – wondering if we were to have a small meal by ourselves.
But now a small army of men and women appeared with fresh table covers, bowls, chopsticks, glasses and napkins, and began laying each of the twenty tables, again.
Within minutes more people began to arrive – by motorbike, by minivan, and on foot, a second wave of two hundred guests who now sat in every single empty place. I was astounded. This woman was about to feed four hundred people in celebration of her new house.
We were joined at our table by an old man, his son, two granddaughters, his nephew, sister-in-law, and a couple of his friends. Out came the beer. Out came the baijiu. Cigarettes were handed around the table.
And then the food: the food was being cooked in a makeshift outdoor kitchen by a battalion of cooks, with steamers the size of hula hoops resting on wood-fired boilers, and two of the largest woks I had ever seen. The food began to arrive on great heavy trays.
There was roast crispy chicken, spicy pickled pig’s ear, translucent preserved quail eggs with fermented chili sauce, a fiery braise of pork and chitterlings in the centre of the table, and bowls of noodles and pickles. There was whole fried fish with sour chilies, mountain mushrooms, and plates of slow-cooked fat pork slices with mei gan cai, a salt-preserved green vegetable.
It was the tastiest food I’d eaten since my last trip to Guizhou. Every time I stopped chewing momentarily one of my fellow guests would urge me on.
“Eat up! Have some more! Taste a little of this!”
While we ate I asked them about the house party. They told me in this part of the world it was considered very good luck to ‘christen’ your new house by having a celebration with all your family. And all of your friends. And your neighbours. And your neighbours’ friends. And anyone else you could think of, including a random foreigner. (Foreigners were considered to be especially lucky for the house, should one happen along at the right time, they told me. I felt incredibly auspicious for the first time in my life.)
When I asked my fellow guests how they knew our lady host they made vague mentions of living “over the hill” and “in the next village”.
“Not related?” I asked.
“So do you actually, like, know her?” I asked.
“Chabuduo” came the hilarious reply. Sort of. Approximately. Kinda.
We all toasted her anyway.
“To the new house! Ganbei!”