Posts Tagged ‘Vietnam’

The emotional logic of Authenticity

April 21, 2012

I teach courses on Interpretation, a topic I was involved in in the mid-1990s when I was tasked with setting up a Wayfinding system for the I & M Canal National Heritage Corridor. The challenge there was prodigious, trying to make visible the geological and historical connections between 100 miles of industrial towns and parks in a diverse modern landscape.

I & M Canal at Lockport. Figure in the distance is one of the results of our Wayfinding project, a Cor-Ten steel silhouette of a historic figure, in this case Wild Bill Hickok.

As a 1990s preservationist, I spoke a lot about the value of preservation being authenticity, the REAL buildings or landscapes or places that contained REAL history. For contrast, I would throw up a slide of a postcard of Mickey Mouse standing in front of Disney World. I was giving this lecture at the Burren College of Art in 1998 and in the back of the room, my own 20-month old daughter let out a gleeful “Mickey!” when the slide appeared. This got laughs, and we all were comforted by our knowledge and her innocence. But in a sense, it was the only slide that had authenticity for a 20-month old.

The Imagineers of Disney seemed to me quite nefarious. I still treasure a New York Times article from 1996 about the construction of a 1/4 mile Atlantic City boardwalk at Disney World. The reporters asked a couple about their experience of this newly-constructed, sanitized “historical” experience and their reply was fantastic in every sense of the word. “It was great! It brought us back to a time we really loved but never knew!”


No such luck. On your bike, sunshine.

Let that sink in a minute. What does it mean? Is it like Philip K. Dick sci-fi come to life, where memories are implanted? Perhaps it is like Thomas Kincade paintings, where images of cultural comfort are ladled with an impossible amount of cheese like a horseshoe sandwich? In any case, a cultural elite like myself should hate that stuff, right?


It’s foreign, so how do you know if it is real?

I gave a paper at the ICOMOS conference last year on Authenticity and Tourism in China, using my favorite example of Dali, where the Butterfly Spring is a 20-year old attraction based on a romantic story lacking “REAL” history, and the Nanzhao temple is a multi-million dollar complex of temples built in 2006 suggested the Tang-era complex of 1300 years ago. It is manufactured history, or at least manufactured artifacts created without documentation or forensic evidence of what was there before.


That roof tile general is only 5.

The Dali story is even trickier, as I learned from a book by Beth Notar. Western backpackers started to arrive in the 1980s and by the 1990s they had created Foreigner Street, thus attracting domestic tourists who wanted to see the backpackers eating their banana pancakes. The first tourists, seeking authenticity, were now the object of attention for a second wave of domestic tourists, who wanted to see authentic backpackers.

The Butterfly Spring trades on nostalgia for a popular 1959 movie set in Dali, which is the other attraction for domestic tourists, later supplemented by Daliwood, the palace where the popular Jin Yong novels (think Grisham or LeCarre, this guy is HUGE) were made into television shows.


So, a place based on a movie seems to be the most inauthentic history of all, right? But I immediately thought of a place we have gone many times, Mismaloya south of Puerto Vallarta in Mexico. It was made famous by the 1960s movie Night of the Iguana, shot on the beach during a particularly romantic and papparazzi-filled episode in the romance between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor (who wasn’t even in the movie). Then, a generation later they shot “Predator” in the jungle above the beach, and we have gone ziplining there with the kids.


The most popular tour in Chicago lately has been “The Devil and the White City” tour, which is based on REAL history but is popular because of a book, and soon a movie. Paris was beset with “DaVinci Code” tours after that fictional book came out, and Hollywood homes of the stars have always been popular. Heck, the world often elects actors and celebrities into positions of governance, putting them on the REAL stage.


Tiruchirapali, 1986. They explained that he was wearing sunglasses because he was a movie star running for office. Like Reagan.

And then the authenticity question crawled into my other favorite seminar topic on historic districts and urbanism. Sharon Zukin’s book on the Life and Death of Authentic Urban Places fomented an interesting discussion in my class. Zukin had a devil of a time trying to define authenticity, ending up combining a sense of connectedness (to the past, to a culture) with a sense of possibility or change. But each concrete example seemed to slip into the familiar vagaries of “I liked it better before…” Before Starbucks or yuppies or hipsters or sidewalk cafes.



Humboldt Park boathouse, 1989

Humboldt Park boathouse, 2006

My take in the discussion is that we form an image of a place within time and then are disappointed when time keeps moving (which is, like, all it ever does) and the place changes. We tend to find neighborhoods “authentic” when they are in the early throes of transition – still seedy, still rough, still ethnic, but with enough artists and hipsters/yuppies/punks to provide each other with emotional support while they thrive on the adventure of the urban edge. They settle into the neighborhood at its height of authenticity and sow the seeds of its future eclipse.


Phyllis’ Musical Inn mural, painted 1987-88.

So, is authenticity a moment in time that is forever fugitive and fleeting? Or is it the emotional logic of “a time we always loved but never knew.” As a historian, authenticity has something to do with accuracy and documentation, but we experience both community and travel in emotional ways and with emotional logic.


These are the traditional Bai costumes of Dali. These are not Bai children.

This fugitive temporal nature of authenticity infuses Notar’s book as well – people lamented the loss of the “real” Dali to water features and the huge gates that now announce “Foreigner Street.” But last time I was there in August we walked the side streets and found both authentic Dali and MORE authentic backpacker places than you now find on Foreigner Street. And we found the coolest Catholic church you will ever see, built in the 1920s.


Took us an hour to find it – TOTALLY worth it.

It has no Christian imagery on the outside beyond the big cross. The carved narratives are familiar Chinese stories and symbols. There is authenticity here, partly because those who built the church were still in traditional society and had not crossed into global modernity. Perhaps that is what our search for authenticity is: a search for natural communities not yet transformed by globalism.

Historic preservation, or the more precise term, heritage conservation, was born of the impulses of the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution, which in turn arose from the globalizing European journeys of the 16th and 17th centuries. The impulse to preserve history, even to record or document history, only emerges with the sense of loss occasioned by modernization. There is nostalgia (a diagnosed and treated disease of the 18th century) in that impulse, and the object of nostalgia’s desire is authenticity. No wonder it is so hard to define in a logical way.

When I traveled Asia as a backpacker in the 1980s, I saw the futility of that search. There were waterborne bamboo houses in western Thailand but they all had televisions. We drove for hours onto a palm plantation island off of Malaysia to find a certain woodcarver and when we found him he was chatting with a guy who shared a studio with my cousin’s husband in Milwaukee. I stumbled across the funeral of the last Prince of Ubud along with 10,000 other tourists being sold the t-shirt.

The post-industrial world is built on culture, and authenticity is a defining thread in the fabric of culture. But what is it?


Kampang Chnang, Cambodia, 2012

Maybe authenticity is like pornography – you know it when you see it? Hmmm. That lack of rigor may satisfy the Supreme Court, but not me. I think the best analogy may come from subatomic physics, where the act of observing a phenomenon affects the phenomenon.


Sa Dec, Vietnam, 2012

Authenticity is a perception. It has an emotional logic and it impacts the objects or places it perceives. The perception of authenticity has a huge impact on our environment and economy: on tourism, gentrification, the discovery and/or fabrication of attractions.


What is the commodity? What is the exchange?

But it is fugitive, like all emotions and all perceptions. As soon as you find that undiscovered place, your act of discovery transforms it forever.

Genocide Tourism

March 17, 2012


There is a very traditional view of conserving historic sites that considers such sites to be honorific and edifying; noble and good. The Mount Vernon Ladies Association of the Union saved Mount Vernon to honor George Washington as the founder of the United States. Of course, they were also trying to protect his home from the depredations of “manufactories” and prevent the Civil War, but their primary stated goal was honorific.

Similarly, much of 19th century American preservation was about battlefields and founding fathers. But historic sites are also saved as warnings to posterity; as legacies or reminders of very horrible events that are the opposite of honorific: we save them because there are lessons to be learned. The Germans have a word for this kind of landmark: Mahnmal, as opposed to the more generic Denkmal or the honorific Ehrenmal. And it was in Germany 30 years ago that I first encountered genocide tourism.

The site was Dachau, a concentration camp outside Munich where Jews and other perceieved enemies of the state were incarcerated and killed. I remember the iron gates with the words “Arbeit Macht Frei” and the ovens in the crematoria and the quote from Santayana about those who do not learn the lessons of history and are thus bound to repeat it.

The infrastructure of Holocaust memorials and museums has grown considerably since 1982, and one of the intriguing sites is of course Prague, where the Nazis saved buildings as a kind of landmark to what they planned as a vanished race. The Jewish quarter and synagogue and cemetery is still a significant tourist attraction.

I recalled this because I have just done a lot of genocide tourism the last two weeks in Cambodia and Vietnam. In Phnom Penh a popular tourist attraction is S-21, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, a onetime school converted into prison and torture chamber by the Khmer Rouge during their murderous 1975-79 regime.

These sites can be brutal: S-21 features skulls in cabinets, huge displays of photos of those killed, and actual shackles, torture devices and preserved cells that were crafted out of the larger classrooms Barbed wire still lines one of the buildings.





The endless rows of photos of those who were tortured and died here is of course sobering, and the remaining physical remnants evocative, although a horror of that scale and brutality is easily beyond the experience of most of the tourists. There are crude paintings depicting some of the tortures, and there are corpse photos that give some sense of it, but like all historic interpretive challenges, the most effective and lasting memory was the descriptions given by our guide.

Our guide was not shy about describing some tortures fairly explicitly eliciting a collective physical reaction from our group as he described the way they killed babies. He also demonstrated how the shackles worked and showed us the bloodstains in one room.

I teach classes and have been involved for years with the interpretation of historic sites, so this question of how to interpret and present and re-present genocide and torture and murder is an interesting one. The barbed wired and various surviving elements do an effective job at conveying a particularly horrific episode in human history, but there was something about the stream of tourists going through the site that created an unfair equivalence of use with more honorific or aesthetic tourists sites.

The Khmer Rouge ruled less than four years, but during that time murdered – often brutally – at least a quarter of the population, over 2 million persons. They began by killing intellectuals and anyone else who did not fit their radical agrarian ideal, continued by killing ordinary citizens, and finally began killing their own cadres as Pol Pot became increasingly paranoid. You see all three groups pictured here in S-21, and sometimes you see their clothes and their bones.


How do you convey genocide? Apparently, some conventions have evolved, such as the piles of clothes and the rows of photos, because there are parallels to Holocaust museums. Just as we have standard ways of interpreting battlefields or house museums or old factories, we have developed a vocabulary for describing the brutality of murdering millions.

A survivor outside sells his book about surviving the prison, and people wander through the site in much the same way they wander about the Royal Palace or the Silver Pagoda. It is a bit more somber, clearly, but it is still a tourist site full of tourists.

So is the Killing fields site, about 20Km outside of Phnom Penh. One of 388 such sites in the country. Depressions in the ground convey the killing fields themselves, while an attractive shrine designed with elements of traditional Khmer architecture provides the backdrop, its interior packed with 17 stories of skulls arranged by age group.



The vocabulary of skulls, perhaps inherited from catacombs sites, reappears, as does the vocabulary of piles of clothing of the murdered. More clothes and more bones tend to surface after rains. The repetition and quantity convey some of the horror.

Signage describes sites where killings happened, where prisoners were held, where chemicals were used to dissolve the bodies. In the fields themselves more signs describe how many bodies in what condition were found in various pits and you swear you can still see fragments of bone and cloth as you walk through the site.



It is somber, but in the sunlight it is not eerie, although even the signs can elicit that involuntary jerk of the neck and shoulders we experienced at S-21. But what struck me again was how big the site was and how many tourists were there to see it. Concessions provided food and drink for the weary.

How must it feel to be famous for genocide and to offer that as one of your city’s – or country’s – greatest “attractions”? Does it promote healing or does it prolong suffering? Certainly it responds to a market – people have heard of the Killing Fields, seen the movie, and want to see them, much as they want to see the (long gone) “murder castle” of H. H. Holmes in Chicago, thanks to the book “The Devil and the White City.” Devil and the White City tours have become a staple the last several years. Is it morbid curiosity? Sure, but what does that mean? Is it morbid curiosity to see Napoleon’s tomb, or Ho Chi Minh’s, or Lincoln’s?

“Morbid curiosity” seems to denote the desire to see a crime scene, or the rubbernecking at a highway accident. It is also something we outlawed 20 years ago, at least in terms of Native Americans. You may not look at their graves or bones, thanks to NAGPRA in 1990. But I can see the skull of St. Martin de Porres and St. Rose of Lima, as I did this January in Lima, Peru. I can even see unidentified bones in Austrian churches or French catacombs:


There is clearly a difference between an Ehrenmal (place of honor) and a Mahnmal (place of warning), but what attracts tourists to each place? Do these sites promote the idea of “Never Again” as it says on the stone in front of Hitler’s birthplace, or do they simply satisfy morbid curiosity? There is certainly an element of identity at play, the identity perhaps unfortunate that Cambodia gained from this horrific history.

Perhaps it is also a calculation about what the tourist want to see. In Vietnam, in Ho Chi Minh City (which everyone still calls Saigon), Americans are brought to the War Remnants Museum (originally the War Atrocities Museum) where they get a good dose of our own little genocides, villages wiped out and all civilians killed.

They also bring everyone to the Cu Chi tunnels, a complex that is literally a city underground, where the Viet Cong waged their war of resistance against the Americans and South Vietnam. And our group was brought to So Do, another Viet Cong site which has been rebuilt with concrete walkways that look like wooden bridges, restored thatch headquarters and trap doors and bunkers built throughout the jungle near Sa Dec.


There was a wedding going on there, the noise of which made it hard to understand our guide, shown here with an interpreter dressed as a 1960s Viet Cong:

This is identity tourism, but it is geared toward the visitors – Americans – rather than the locals, although there were domestic tourists there as well. This somewhat relentless series of Vietnam War sites that most tourists visit is indicative of the identity politics of the tourists. The Vietnam War defined the United States in a way it did not define Vietnam. Vietnam defines itself much more by the oppression they feel from the Chinese, who invaded for a thousand years and have fought them regularly since (including a shooting war years after the Americans left). The tourism infrastructure of these Vietnam War sites is clearly driven by the American market, and in fact So Do is almost entirely a reconstruction.

The effect of all of this genocide tourism was neither numbing nor depressing. It was certainly sobering, and certainly in many moments uncomfortable, but comfort will never convey history accurately, even more pedestrian and less brutal histories. Ultimately genocide tourism is a particular brand of heritage tourism, driven in part by identity, in part by a need to warn posterity, and largely by the market for seeing, and perhaps understanding, the shared inhumanity in us all.


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