Posts Tagged ‘Weishan Heritage Valley’

Selling Out or Keeping It Real?

July 4, 2012

An article in the Washington Post yesterday described the economic challenges facing great European landmarks and how many are turning to corporate sponsorships and licensing deals to help defray the costs of maintaining ancient buildings.  This practice in turn has caused criticism from those who feel it is wrong to “sell” your collective heritage.

I began this blog a little less than seven years ago and in one of my early posts (prior to the invention of photography, apparently) I confessed my own apostasy in the case of the River Forest Women’s Club, a private club that was sold to a private owner who converted it into an award-winning home protected by preservation easements and powered by green technology.  (It is now for sale, if you are interested)

The controversy at that time was that the building was perceived as a public landmark, in part because the local Park District had operated it for paid public programming for three years.  But the public entity – the Park District – wanted to demolish the building, and did not have the resources to rehabilitate it following decades of deferred maintenance.

Should landmarks – physical elements of our collective heritage – be privatized?  The question is faulty on the face because it panders to the false idea that public and private are separate realms.  This ideational construct is not found, to my knowledge, in thousands of years of human history.  While some entities and enterprises are construed as public or private, their relationships and interpenetrations in the political economy of the real world are manifold.

There are obvious examples of this public-private symbiosis: bailouts of the banking and auto industries under Bush and Obama; financing of private railroads by 19th century land grants; massive municipal subsidies to private sports teams; the colossal public infrastructural support that made suburbs possible.  Yet still we prize this permeable distinction.

Clearly some standards are needed…

To me, the challenge in conserving our heritage, in interpreting it and insuring its value to our own and future generations is the challenge of sustainability:  how do you keep something vital, productive and relevant over time.

The answer to this question comes not simply from those with expertise in building materials, technologies, or architecture: nor simply from those who understand economics, planning and programming.  Every act of conservation, like every enterprise – succeeds or fails based on its successful balancing of all these factors and more.  It takes a village.

The question is not whether you put a billboard up on scaffolding, or allow a watch company to license the image of your landmark, or rent out your house museum to a TV production company for three days, but what the return on those actions is in terms of long-term sustainability of site, message, and ongoing public involvement.  If I make a public site inaccessible to the general public by renting it out two days a week to private entities, but the return on those two days ensures the long-term survival of the site – and its continued public access five days a week – I think I have a good deal.  This is a TV costume drama being shot in one of the courtyard house museums in East Lotus Village (Dong Lian Hua) in the Weishan Heritage Valley last month:

Our National Trust property in Monterey – Cooper-Molera Adobe – was once a commercial structure appended to a house.  It will be again, and the leasing to commercial interests will not only sustain the building – it will ENHANCE its message and interpretation because it will again function as it did originally.

At Mount Vernon they rebuilt and reopened the distillery that George Washington had built there.  I suppose Ann Pamela Cunningham, who spearheaded the effort to save Mount Vernon in the 1850s might have objected because her goal was to save Washington’s home from the onset of “manufactories”.  In terms of historic context, she was wrong, because in fact George Washington HAD a manufactory at Mount Vernon and was at one time the largest distiller in the United States.

But Ann Pamela promoted an ideological purism that sought to venerate landmarks as holy shrines.  Because we value the things we share we tend to make them sacred and want to protect them from the impulsiveness of markets or the vagaries of politics.  But any student of history can show how even the most sacred constructions had a vital economic role.  Moneychangers have ever been in the temple.

Gothic cathedrals were houses of worship to be sure, but they also had a place in important business transactions and documents BECAUSE they were public, communal places.  Khmer kings built temples to Shiva and Vishnu for worship to be sure, but also to shift commercial exchange to the environs of their new temple.   Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries of England less for religious belief and more because they had tons of money and commercial agriculture.

Perhaps there is utility in making our communal property a little more sacred than our private property.  A landmark is different – it contains stories of a community’s shared past.  It IS more important.  But importance and significance do not require religious asceticism.  A site can be significant AND productive.

That is the basic message of the Global Heritage Fund, since Monday my new employer and one of the few entities that recognizes heritage conservation as a vital community and economic development strategy.  Our mission is to use some of the world’s greatest heritage sites as keys to poverty alleviation, education and economic growth in developing countries.  Join us.

Do We Really Want Authenticity?

March 10, 2011

“Authenticity” is a word we keep coming back to in the world of cultural heritage conservation. The concept of authenticity lies at the centerpiece of the international charters that have defined preservation practice since the 1930s, and especially since the shift toward “intangible cultural heritage” that began with the Nara document in 1994.

Shoso-in, 8th century temple pavilion at Nara, photographed 2004.

Authenticity is a key aspect of how visitors encounter and experience historic sites. In our work in the Weishan Heritage Valley in China, we stress the value to the heritage tourist of authenticity. This is an argument for maintaining local businesses along the Southern Silk Road in Weishan, rather than removing them for tourist shops, as has been done in Lijiang, a World Heritage Site that experienced catastrophic tourist development and became an economic monoculture.

Peaches for sale, main road, Weishan, China, 2009 Photograph copyright Vincent L Michael

Weishan, main road, 2009. Photograph copyright Vincent L Michael

Tinsmith, Weishan, 2008. Photograph copyright Vincent L Michael
Weishan is a county seat for the Yi and Hui Autonomous county, a diverse region made of many ethnicities, including the Hui, a Muslim group whose stunning Dong Lun Hua village I visited in 2008 and 2009.

Courtyard house at Dong Lun Hua, 2009. Photograph copyright Vincent L Michael

Mosque at Dong Lun Hua, 2009. Photograph copyright Vincent L Michael

As a county seat, Weishan has businesses that service the entire valley countryside, such as coffin makers and funerals. These are authentic, and they are still done in their authentic location, in stark contrast to the tourist shops in downtown Lijiang.

Funeral wreath, Weishan, 2009. Photograph copyright Vincent L Michael

Funeral procession in Weishan, 2008. Photograph copyright Vincent L Michael

Coffin shop, Weishan, 2008. Photograph copyright Vincent L Michael

But I have also written in the past about the large market that exists for sites and stories that SEEM authentic but are not. My favorite example from near Weishan is the famed Three Pagodas at Dali, where tourists flock to see a T’ang era pagoda flanked by two of more recent vintage. These once stood in front of a large Buddhist temple complex during the era of the Dali Kingdom in the 10th century.

So they rebuilt it. In 2006. A massive complex of more than two dozen brand new temples filled with hundreds of gold leafed statues. There was a temple complex here a millenium ago, but it has not been here for a long time and the reconstruction is extremely conjectural. It lacks authenticity.


Changsheng temple complex, Dali, 2009. Photographs copyright Vincent L Michael

But it does not lack tourists (although apparently it has not attracted as many as they would like). The point here – and in Lijiang, is that for a large group of tourists, authenticity doesn’t matter.

You can call it the Disneyland effect, and while I used to use Disneyland as a sort of insult to authentic places, it is worth remembering two things. First, Disneyland itself is now an historic landmark more than 50 years old. Second, places do not have to be old to be authentic. Disneyland was authentic when it was new. But there is a reason that Disneyland becomes an epithet for the heritage conservationist: part of what it offers to the tourist is the FEELING and IMPRESSION of age and nostalgia. It is authentically new, but part of its authenticity is an inauthentic channeling of impressions of the past into the present.

One of the ways you can distinguish between Disneyland authenticity and REAL authenticity is that the real stuff sometimes is stinky or ugly or unkempt or unresolved. Like reality.

deer hoof as a hook in courtyard house, Weishan, 2009. Photograph copyright Vincent L Michael

Despite the plethora of China images and examples above, what got me thinking about this today was a new restaurant in Chicago by the unparalleled Grant Achatz, whose Alinea has three Michelin stars and has soared past the entirety of Manhattan cuisine. His new concept is called Next, and will change its theme every few months, as reported today here. In cuisine, as in heritage conservation, there is great interest in authenticity, and Achatz’ first attempt will be to bring Next back to Paris in 1906. As the article notes, the reaction to a recreation of a 1906 sunchoke and roasted hazelnut soup was “polarizing”. A lot of people hated it. Because it was authentic.

This reminded me of a trip I did for Michelin (green guides, not cuisine) to Indianapolis in 1999. I visited the James Whitcomb Riley House in Lockerbie Square, which was never restored, only preserved exactly as it was. The proof of this authenticity came as soon as you walked into the living room, for the ceiling of the 1872 home was painted in a silver color that was uncomfortable, garish, and generally awful. And absolutely authentic. Fortunately for you, they did not allow pictures inside.

Disneyland would never have used that color, because it would drive away business. Grant Achatz is such a star at this point that he can dictate the authentic experience and NOT cater to popular taste. Alinea famously chooses your 13 or 14 courses for you (see this comic.). Special needs or tastes can eat elsewhere, which, in a sense, is the price of authenticity.

The same issue came up on the near north side of town in the Kemper House, an 1873 home that was restored by Eli Lilly, the great Indianapolis preservationist who endowed the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana. HLFI had restored the house as their offices and then as a house museum, and returned the original exterior paint scheme, which upset many locals who had been used to seeing the exterior painted white, as it had been for many years. That was the authentic memory, but true, original authenticity had another color scheme.

But that scheme did not extend to the interior. They researched the original wall colors inside and through scientific analysis found the original color of the walls. And it was godawful and they could not bring themselves to recreate it. It would have been too off-putting.

I started thinking about authenticity the other night when I was perusing a hot rod magazine given me by Chris Osborne, the purveyor of the lovely magazine Brisbane Modern, which charts the mid-century Modern aspects of Queensland.

As I read about the hot rods, a cultural artifact I do not know much about at all, I noted that all had historic labels: ’34 Willys, ’29 Ford, ’50 Buick, etc. But often the bodies were fibreglass reproductions, the chassis extensively chopped or boxed, and it was very difficult to discern from the descriptions which cars had much historic material, if any at all. I guess it was beside the point: taste and appeal to past elements was the agent here, not authenticity.

Disneyland itself did this from the beginning and still does. I always have my students read a description in the Wall Street Journal from 1996 about the opening of an Atlantic-City-styled boardwalk in Disney World. It has all of the attractions of Atlantic City without any of the beggars or gambling down-and-outers. It was sanitized history, and it was a successful product. But what really struck me was the reaction people had to it. My favorite quote:

“It brought us back to a time we really loved but never knew.”

That’s it.
We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.
Philip K. Dick has come true.

Yunnan Study Trip 2011

February 12, 2011

We are preparing for our fourth Study Trip to the Weishan Heritage Valley in Yunnan, China, this summer. Each trip has focused on preserving the historic resources of this unique city, which dates to the founding of the Nanzhao Empire in the 7th century, and which includes numerous landmarks from the last several hundred years, including the stunning North Gate, the second largest gate in China after Tien An Men. And it is older. Here is Felicity Rich’s 2006 photo of this national landmark.

The trip begins in Beijing, with visits to the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, and the Great Wall at Mutianyu.

We then fly to Xi’an to see the famous terra cotta army of Qinshihuangdi…

That amazing 1980s discovery is contained in 3 buildings and an expansive museum, but everyone forgets that Xi’an was the capital for several empires, including the golden age empire of the Han (roughly contemporaneous with the Roman Empire) and the T’ang (7-9th centuries when Europe was NADA). The city has a fabulous city wall, a stunning mosque

Xi’an city wall

this is a minaret

and two of the oldest pagodas in China, dating from the 8th century, known as the Da Y’an Ta (Great Wild Goose Pagoda) and Xiao Y’an Ta (Small Wild Goose Pagoda) and an excellent museum adjacent to the latter.

Da Yan Ta

Xiao Yan Ta

and then there are the famous dumplings, which tourists go nutty for, but to be honest, the food gets MUCH better down in Yunnan, where we head next, first to Dali, home city of the Bai people

Yunnan is unusual in that the minorities (Bai, Hui, Yi, Lisu, Miao, Dai, etc.) are actually a majority in comparison to the Han, a very rare situation in a Chinese province. Dali also has a nice architectural connection to Xi’an in the Three Pagodas, the oldest of which is probably by the same architect as the Xiao Yan Ta in Xi’an (I mean look at it, come on!) and is contemporaneous, roughly 9th century:

We then proceed to Weishan, that lovely town on the Southern Silk Road and the Tea Horse route (the one that brought the good Pu’er tea up from south Yunnan to Tinbet). Unlike Dali, which has gone all touristic in the center, or Lijiang, which did the same, Weishan has not been overrun by tourists. But it has been preserved.

The coffin makers and noodle makers and tailors and food shops still serve the local people from the valley. Tourists are very few and far between. The food is plucked off the mountainside in the morning and you eat it for lunch. No refrigerators to spoil the taste.


The other amazing thing about this trip – unlike most Study Trips – is that we spent a week to 10 days in Weishan and work with the local officials and people to actually do a project in the historic town. My colleague on all of the trips to Weishan (with students and without as consultants) has been Yunxia “Jingjing” Gao, and she has proved amazing at securing access to inaccessible sites as well as getting us INCREDIBLE value for money on every trip.

In 2004 we planned a restoration of the Dong Yue temple complex. in 2008 it was restored, largely according to our plan. In addition to our partners at the Center for US-China Arts Exchange at Columbia University, we have had support from SAIC’s Barry Maclean, who made the temple restoration possible.

Over 8 years, we have developed strong relationships with the local officials and a level of trust and cooperation that is unprecedented in other (more expensive) study trips. In 2006, we documented 16 buildings (12 courtyard houses and 4 temples) in Weishan with large format and digital photography. In 2009 we developed plans for modernizing courtyard houses because in cities like Lijiang, courtyard houses are preserved and empty, because they don’t have basic amenities like plumbing.

image by Racquel Davey

The project for 2011 is really exciting. We are going back to the Dong Yue temple and the adjacent Tai Bao palace, a century-old structure of pavilions and moon gates that we want to convert to a residential arts/scholarship center.

The government of Weishan has agreed to give SAIC the site and we are assembling support and partners to help make it happen. This type of project is not found in other student study trips.

We will present our project work and findings to the local officials, and then we will proceed to Shanghai, where I will do my famous tour of the Bund (it looks just like Michigan Avenue in Chicago) and we can marvel at the incomparable treasures of the Shanghai Museum.

The trip will leave Chicago May 31 and finish in Shanghai on June 21.

Curious? Email me at vmicha@saic.edu or visit the study trip webpage. My colleague and faculty expert on China, Yunxia “Jingjing” Gao is also available for consultation. Weishan has been one of the culminations and highlights of my preservation career, and I would be happy to share it with you.

Life and Death Heritage

January 14, 2011


On July 23, 1986 I attended the funeral procession/cremation of Tjokorda Gde Oka Sukawati, a prince and stepbrother to the last king of Ubud in Bali. I was traveling there (long story) and stumbled across the ceremony, which featured an amazing Pelebon procession in the Balinese Hindu tradition, including a bade, an 11-tiered pagoda tower used to carry the deceased to the cemetery,

A naga banda – basically a dragon vehicle, a lembu, the coffin in the shape of a bull (nandi), a swarm of people.

Now, the funeral tradition there and elsewhere is of course solemn, but it was also touristic. My camera lens caught the tourists lining up, even joining the procession, and local vendors using the occasion to sell t-shirts and the like.

When I lectured on Bali at the Field Museum in 1987 following the trip, I included my perceptions of the tourist side of the place, bolstered by an interview I had done there with Silvio Santosa, a native who had formed the Bina Wisata Foundation to help educate tourists about proper behavior, since they had a tendency to treat the place like Cancun during Spring Break.

Candi Dasa, Bali
What strikes me today is not the intangible heritage represented by the performance of the cremation ceremony or the challenges of keeping tourists from fornicating in ancient temples but the complex interweaving of tourism and heritage sites in general.



Lijiang, Yunnan, China, 2008
I have the good fortune of serving on the Senior Advisory Board of the Global Heritage Fund, which recently released a report “Saving Our Vanishing Heritage” which details not only GHF’s efforts to preserve World Heritage Sites in the developing world, but also the complex layering of tourism, economics and heritage conservation that can save – or destroy – such sites.

Angkor Wat, 3rd gallery, 2001
When I began in this field in the 1980s, heritage tourism was the latest and greatest idea: get people to come see history – built, living, or otherwise – and they will pay for the experience, generating the income sites need to survive. I saw Arthur Frommer speak about how heritage tourists avoid places that don’t preserve their history and how heritage tourists spend more than other tourists. We used lots of oversimplified multipliers in those days to calculate the economic benefits of preserving historic sites for tourism.

Tien An Men, 2009
But in the last decade we have seen the effects of too much tourism. I spoke at an ICOMOS conference on tourism in the Pacific Rim in San Francisco in 2007, and that conference was inspired in part by the overabundance of tourism and the attendant wear-and-tear on historic sites, like the great temples of Angkor in Cambodia, which survived in the jungles for centuries and even the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s but are now beset by tourist numbers which exceed 2 million per year and looting of the more remote sites for the international art market. When I last saw Angkor 10 years ago the number was less than half that.

Angkor Wat 2001
Many of the challenges that Global Heritage Fund addresses as it seeks to build capacity for conservation are external to the heritage tourism economy: war, looting, and even the depredations of nature and climate.

Ta Prohm, Angkor, 2001
But many of the largest challenges are the tourists themselves. Macchu Picchu in Peru has gone from 420,000 visitors in 2000 to 2.4 million in 2009. Petra in Jordan has almost tripled to 900,000 in the last decade. Yet, at the same time, heritage tourism still represents a major economic engine for the developing world. The GHF report notes the dilemma: if the sites are simply exploited, they will be destroyed and cease to draw tourists. Macchu Picchu accounts for 90 percent of Peru’s tourism revenue. Part of the problem is sustainability planning: Peru has many other valuable heritage sites, but these have not been marketed, managed or developed. Planning at Angkor in the 1990s directed development to the outskirts of the site, but lack of controls has placed much private development in more sensitive areas. Moreover, despite the incredible value in heritage sites – GHF estimates $20-30 billion for the top 500 heritage sites – only a fraction of that revenue, $400-500 million, or 2-3 percent, is spent on the sites.

Coba, Mexico, 2006
The best projects work to train local officials, planners, developers and others in sustainable management and development practices. GHF’s project in the walled city of Pingyao, Shaanxi, China, is emblematic, and I had the opportunity to visit that site in 2008.



GHF has also worked to help Lijiang in China, which I cited as a bad example in my 2007 presentation, since the city was stripped of local authentic culture after becoming a world heritage site: the city’s buildings were preserved, but it became an ersatz tourist town: local businesses replaced by tourism shops, homes replaced by hotels. I called this catastrophic tourist development, since it replaces a sustainable and diverse local economy with a dangerously unbalanced economic monoculture.


Lijiang, 2008
Our work in Weishan, Yunnan, China over the last seven years with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Center for US-China Arts Exchange is focused on just this complex intersection: Heritage tourists want an authentic experience, not a commercialized stage set, which is what Lijiang is very like. Weishan has done a great job of preserving the real, everyday businesses along the Southern Silk Road that passes through the great 1390 North Gate and the Drum Tower. You can still see locals shopping for clothes, rice noodles drying on streetside racks, birds and jellies and coffins and shoes for sale, along with some antique shops and food stalls. The final chapter on Weishan is not written, but in 2007 and 2010 it is a model of sustainable development.


Weishan, 2009

Weishan noodle shop, 2006. Photo copyright Felicity Rich

noodles drying, Weishan 2006. Photo copyright Felicity Rich
Huge challenges remain: The international tourist market that appreciates authenticity is actually dwarfed by a domestic tourist market that is happy to visit the Chinese versions of Branson: artificially constructed sites with artificial histories and happy Happy entertainment. Authenticity is a challenging concept for most tourists, something I recall even when we used to work in Ireland in the Burren, where the great portal dolmen of Poulnabrone was surrounded by little tiny dolmens, built by tourists in acts of pure vandalism, destroying the delicate limestone pavement ecosystem to build little stonehenges that would fool the next tourist into thinking they were seeing a thousands-years-old structure.

Poulnabrone, Burren, Clare, Ireland, 2002
Again, my interest today is not in the misbehaving tourist as much as the economic context: heritage tourism is a boon AND a bust for historic sites and places seeking economic uplift. Heritage conservation is a huge expense AND a huge revenue source for countries at all levels of development. Economic development is a threat AND an opportunity – if done with long-term returns in mind for historic sites worldwide. It is not (I am tempted to say NEVER) an “EITHER OR” proposition but a “BOTH AND” proposition. The advantage the heritage conservationist brings to this challenge is quite simply the long view: we are not about the quick buck or the quick fix. We want to keep BOTH historic sites AND a productive local society for as long as we can.

Cashel, Ireland, 2002

Rainy Season, Yunnan

August 7, 2007



s wall bestS

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

Traffic and pouring rain made the half hour trip through Kunming take over an hour. By the time the taxi got to the airport it was less than an hour before our flight and the driver had to navigate a flooded parking lot with water bubbling up from the sewers. Two days earlier we were caught on a mountain pass between Weishan and Dali, trapped behind a van stuck in two feet of red mud. Muslim women pushed the van out but by then there were a hundred cars and trucks lined up and we were an hour late to Dali. Welcome to the rainy season in Yunnan, the high-elevation tropical southwest of China. This is part of my job.

We made the plane and there is a woman on a stretcher right behind me where three rows of seats used to be. Last night we sat in an ex-pat bar in Kunming drinking Laotian beer with Angel, our Burmese-Chinese interpreter and her friends. It had been a day of losing things – first Jonathan left his camera in a tuk-tuk in Weishan, which the honest driver brought back, then he left his backpack in a Dali restaurant and also got it back. In the morning Andrew couldn’t find his wedding band (he found it) and in the evening Jerry misplaced an umbrella (also found). Normal travel stuff, lost items and rain delays.

I have a scratch on my arm from the barbed wire atop the one remnant of the Weishan City wall, on the military base on the south side of town. I stumbled into it as I tried to keep the sentry gate out of the photographs. How many decades ago was that last tetanus shot? Heck, if I was going to worry about that I would worry about eating cold food like Ken warns against, but it tastes good and I am a little brash that way. I was drinking tap water in India in the mid-1980s. Enough chili pepper and you are fine. I don’t think the reason people get sick in foreign countries can be entirely explained by biology – it is a mental adjustment too.

The afternoon after the barbed wire we had tea with community leaders in a nearby Muslim village and visited four 1920s watchtowers and courtyard houses in the community. The towers gave superb views of the exceptionally well-preserved village, its mosques indistinguishable from traditional Chinese pagodas. The road there was lined with stone carvers crafting tombs – elegant aedicules of yellow sandstone flanked by fu lions.

Beef noodles for breakfast, four different kinds of mushrooms at every meal, lashings of green tea, official meals with copious baijiu toasts and the constant putt-putt of tuk-tuks. I like my job. I like China too – it is an appropriate successor to the U.S. – sort of oversized and clumsy, not refined like Japan but massive, driven and infinitely more skilled at capitalism than Europe and America. Kartik and Jonathan are on their first trip to China and especially for Jonathan its exoticism is striking. I remember how I was overwhelmed four years ago on my first trip, and I see it with my students each time we come. For me it is familiar, even comfortable, especially at mealtimes.

In most ways Weishan is like every other town in the world, a little of everything, but its historic core is unique, especially in China, which is moving so fast that little history will survive the next few years. Weishan is special – so far.

I have seen dramatic changes in 4 years. The old bird and flower market in Kunming is being torn down. The place is cleaner and everything runs pretty smoothly despite the rain-induced traffic jams on mountain passes and city streets. Yesterday at lunch I toasted our hosts with “China is the future and it is encouraging to see that in some places that future will happen in harmony with nature and history.”

In Weishan we reviewed progress on the temple restoration our students helped plan in 2004, now being funded by a leading Chicagoan. We were also there with three architects to respond to a preservation plan for the historic town, birthplace of the Nanzhao empire (700 AD) and center of Yi culture. The plan was authored by Tongji University, the MIT of China, and it was detailed in its surtvey of historic structures but predictable in its expansion plans and troubling in its advocacy of rebuilding long-lost landmarks, like the city walls and gates. Only the north gate survives, a regal 1390 structure that is the second largest in China after Tien An Men in Beijing.

Last summer our students documented 16 buildings in town and ultimately contributed 30-odd photos to a Yunnan photo book about Weishan. Faculty member Felicity Rich contributed so many that author Fan Jianhua listed her as a principal photographer. We returned to some of the houses and it struck me that I have had a small part in helping preserve this place – not as big as Ken and Jerry, who rep the Center for US-China Arts Exchange, but still, it is something.

Sunday we had a two hour meeting with the Party Secretary and later another with about 20 other local officials, including the mayor. They agreed that I told them how impressed the ICOMOS audience was with the “Weishan model” in April in San Francisco, a model that accommodates tourism without killing the town, as has happened in Lijiang and Dali and so many other Chinese “tourist” cities, Everyone in Weishan agrees with us – they don’t want to drive the locals out and they don’t want “any fake antiques”. Now we will see what the planners at Tongji want.

That will be a tough meeting, but the meetings, like the place and even the language, are becoming easier the more I do this. A two-hour formal meeting in a provincial government office in southwestern China is just something preservationists do. In the last year I have had similar meetings in Chicago office buildings, wooden lodges in the Carpathian mountains of the Ukraine, and by the shore of Lake Siljan in Sweden. The issues don’t vary: only the venues. Like I said, I like my job.

Postscript: I wrote this on the plane from Kunming to Shanghai last week. The meeting at Tongji turned out much better than expected – our colleagues were impressed that we thought Weishan was worth coming back to again and again, and they agreed to work with us on refining the plan. My brashness extended to toxic Shanghai and my GI tract paid the comeuppance. Four days back and I have a head cold. Nothing a little Pu’er tea can’t cure.

The problem and beauty of China

June 21, 2006



menghua.frich.sml

Originally uploaded by vincusses.

The problem and beauty of China is that nothing stays the same. This is why it is the middle kingdom, the sensibility and experience of all humanity.

We are just back from a 3-week preservation trip to China. We go to Weishan, one of the few communities there with a true commitment to preservation. It is in far southwest Yunnan province, in the Mekong Delta, and it shares many cultural groups with southeast Asian nations like Thailand, Laos and Burma. It is a beautiful place, but also very real and everyday. The food is better than anywhere. They have 50 kinds of mushrooms. We ate three meals a day and each meal was 10-12 dishes and it took the better part of a week before we saw a dish repeated. Nothing the same, but always good. We had enough clout to get two formal dinners with Mayor Zhang of Weishan, which consists of a lot of toasting with rice wine and gifts and the best food.

China changes and changes are challenges. Our first was money. Despite double-checking our budget in January, we still ran over and had to up the program fee. But there was still a gap. We limited faculty salaries and faculty Jingjing Gao worked the locals for every nickel. The trip still came in at 25% less than the other trip to China.

We had the challenge of overnight train rides to Dali, and the nonstop rain once we got to that scenic walled city, center of the Bai minority culture and a must-spot on the backpacker route. It is very nice, but compared to Weishan, quite touristy, with shops dedicated to the foreigners and Chinese who visit. We saw the Three Pagodas, millenia-old pagodas outside town and then, shockingly, a massive $2 billion rebuilt temple that must have included 25 buildings and a hundred gold statues.

I guess that’s the difference between China and America: a country run by businessmen versus a country run by lawyers. We scream when the government offers to give money to a church. Atheist China builds a massive Buddhist temple because it will attract tourists.

Then we were on to Weishan and saw real temples – the old ones that dot Weibaoshan, Taoist masterpieces. Chang Cheun temple is restored but not too much (as is often the case in Asia). They left many of the old paintings alone, which is better than tarting them up like that behemoth in Dali. Mr. Xiao, the monk, again demonstrated flute and tai chi for us on the temple grounds. Thank god his cell phone didn’t ring until he finished the demonstration.

We then spent two days touring the best courtyard houses in Weishan, which is 1300 years old and while some of its temples go back to the Ming era 600 years ago, most of the courtyards were 80 or 90 years old. But they were great. We crawled through them – many occupied by four or more families. Beautiful dragon and phoenix-headed brackets, reflecting walls decorated with stunning paintings, and all of those features we learned to love as chi’h-wei, liang, qiuwen and tang wu. Some of the houses were lovingly restored, some were decrepit but stunning. We measured and drew and described and photographed them. It was hard work by all 13 students and the Weishan officials were impressed at the end.

The biggest challenge was typical China Changes. Our hosts asked us to photo document courtyard houses, so we got a field camera. One of our hosts – a real power broker – was preparing a book on Weishan’s courtyard houses and invited us to submit images. He insisted that the images be digital, so we bought three digital cameras. We decided to go ahead with the large format as well, for the learning experience.

Day 2 of the documentation of 16 buildings in Weishan: Our host calls and asks us what film we are shooting and we say digital and he says the digital isn’t good he wants medium format. Turns out he changed his mind in April. Nothing stays the same in China. We know medium format is better – that is what we wanted to use in the first place.

A week later he shows up with a bus for all of the students and buys us all breakfast in Kunming after an all-night train ride. It was wild – giant crocks of chicken soup at scalding temperature – you cook meat and veg and noodles by dropping them in. One of our students does not eat chicken but ate it, reckoning (correctly) that it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

So then the faculty go to meet the power broker. We meet in his publisher’s office and see the book layout and the lovely medium format transparencies. Yes, we know that these are better, says Felicity. Always did. Would have done it that way if we weren’t told otherwise. She critiques the book for cramming too many pictures too close together. It was a slightly tense meeting, us feeling twisted for not hearing that the Boss changed his mind, him feeling a little defensive because we clouted him into promising us representation in the book. Felicity is also refusing to give full size images unless he is going to use them, trying to protect the artist/students. China is not Country Number One when it comes to copyright-protection. She later physically protected the students’ large format work as we tried to get it through airport security in Kunming and later in Shanghai.

Another challenge was the beta version of Adobe Lightroom. This software would allow us to organize the images by historic site for the Weishan officials and by category for the book publisher in Kunming. Lightroom ran perfectly in tests but started to chug and choke mid-week as the library expanded to 2000 images. The poor students on the later teams had to deal with an increasingly buggy beta software and an increasingly impatient faculty member (me.) We finally had to give up and spend a sleepless night on the train to Kunming reorganizing the student photos into the categories for the book publisher.

Shanghai marked the more relaxed coda to the trip, but even there nothing stays the same. I was doing my regular tour of the Bund only we couldn’t cross over into Huangpi Park because the government closed it for a meeting of leaders of Central Asian oil nations. Can you imagine? In Chicago we would never close a park for heads of state – only for Toyota executives. The meetings also closed museums and galleries, which was a bummer for many of the students.

Despite the changes, the trip was a success. We had a great Powerpoint (a little delayed by recalcitrant computers) for the Weishan officials and a video from student Ryan (Dong Geun) Oh. We celebrated birthdays, climbed the Great Wall, had Peking Duck and ate sticks and leaves and went to the dressmaker and tailor and perhaps even the bars and everyone had their turn with the gut rot but we saw things no one else does. We crawled over 13 courtyard houses, documenting and measuring and photographing them in the midst of people’s lives. We got to know the place a bit.

We were in Weishan 10 days before we saw a Westerner. Of course, the book and our work will help promote Weishan and perhaps it won’t be so unspoiled in the future. Or maybe they will do the best of both – a true heritage tourism that looks out for the locals first.

I miss Weishan and China, despite all of the twists and turns. Especially at mealtimes. I could kill for a bowl of beef noodles right now. With lots of chili. It isn’t breakfast otherwise.