Fenghuang is what happens when China doesn’t destroy its ancient cities.
In 2001, Fenghuang, a county in the far west of Hunan province, was a backwater. It held the official distinction of being one of the “Nation’s Poor Counties,” and was consistently ranked as one of the poorest areas in Hunan. Now Fenghuang is being heralded as one of China’s most successful models for developments, as billions of dollars of outside capital flows in and out of the place and much of the local population has transitioned from being impoverished townies and peasants to small time business owners and employees of thriving companies.
How did this happen? Tourism.
Fenghuang is located on the Yun Gui Plateau, an area chock full of high mountains, rivers, and forests. Due to this terrain and location, this has always been a forgotten hinterland of China, made up of mountain villages that have stayed off the country’s main grid for hundreds of years. Likewise, almost three quarters of the total local population here are ethnic minorities, representing an incredible 29 of the country’s 55 recognized groups.
Having many traditional villages with old style architecture, “exotic” minority cultures, mountainous scenery befitting a Chinese landscape painting, along with a well preserved and functioning ancient city center and the newly rediscovered Ming Dynasty Great Wall of Southern China, Fenghuang was a previously untapped a treasure trove in the current commodify-everything style of Chinese economics. Literally, the place was auctioned off to the highest bidder.
The highest bidder proved to be the Yellow Dragon Cave Corporation (YDCC), which is headquartered in Changsha and is a wholly owned subsidiary of Beijing’s Datong Industrial Corporation of China
(DICC). This company had already leased a number of China’s national heritage sites around the country, and in 2001 they made a deal to pay the local government of Fenghuang ¥0.83 billion yuan for the right to manage eight of its big tourist sites, including Tuo River Town, for the next 50 years.
In the New China, even ancient cities, towns, and ramparts can be bought and sold. I’m not sure if this is what Deng meant when he talked about socialism with Chinese characteristics, but this deal and the boom of development and tourism that resulted from it has been dubbed Fenghuang’s “Great Leap Forward.” But the question of who did the leaping has always been up for debate.
Though what’s not debatable is the fact that this place has been irreversibly turned inside out by the shear pursuit of profit, and the corporation that runs Fenghuang and many of the people who live there have cultivated this singular focus into an obsession. In point, in the span of a single a decade Fenghuang went from being a backwater to a carnival, with few stops in between.
Arrival in Fenghuang
I stepped off the bus at Fenghuang’s station and was immediately herded onto a minibus with around a dozen other tourists. It was clear where I was going: Tuo River Town, the city’s historic district, along with everyone else. When in Chinese tourist sites, it is often better to just float with the current, the crowd will lead you to your destination. So I did not protest or ask any questions, I just got on the bus and was subsequently hurled down the throat of beast of commerce.
The minibus rounded a corner and rolled down a hill. A few moments later I was looking upon the ancient city. It crawled up over a hill from the base of a small valley on the other side of the river. The buildings were a mix of Ming and Qing dynasty architectural styles. Some were constructed from old, gray stone bricks in the style of the north and east, while others were decked out with with plank board facades and stilts, like more southerly located old cities. Nearly all had ornately tiled, step gabled roofs that flared out at the ends with stunted swallowtails. The houses on the riverfront rose up for three or four stories, the upper floors of which were held up by stilts. The buildings were connected together in rows and stacked in layers running up the side of the hill, like snakes piled on top of each other, mirroring the winds and bends of the river below. From afar, Tuo River Town was like an old painting of a remote and romanticized city in old China, but I simply wasn’t close enough yet to see what the place was really made of.
I called out to the driver to let me off. I knew that I was going to have to attempt to subvert the ridiculous 148 yuan (US$24) admission fee, and sneaking into places is often better done when you’re not being delivered at the ticket gate with a mass of other tourists. Tuo River Town is a tourist attraction, but it’s also a real city district where people live, conduct business, work, and play. To be required to pay a moderately excessive amount of money to go to a tourist site is one thing, to be forced to pay a toll to enter a real and functioning city is another — especially when the locals who actually live in this place do not support the fee. They say that putting admissions booths at the entrances to their town sabotages their businesses, something they have been protesting by going on strike, blockading tourist sites, and even clashing with the police.
Previously, visitors were charged 148 yuan for a ticket to enter 10 tourist sites within Tuo River Town, but entrance to the city itself was free. Now, in order to get into this place at all you need to buy what is basically the ticket for the 10 sites. While the government says that this fee was implemented because the town was receiving more visitors than it could sustainable accommodate, the measures they took would only cut down on the number of independent tourists, as the package tourists were already paying the 148 yuan fee to visit the sites anyway.
It is the independent tourists that many of the local businesses in Fenghuang depend on. Many of the locals are virtually completely cut out of the elite-driven, large scale tourism that is now the hallmark of their city, and they make their living providing goods and services to the stragglers who show up without being part of pre-set package tour. By charging the 148 yuan fee to get into the city rather than to just to visit the designated tourist sites, the YDCC is able to better implement their monopoly and gouge all visitors equally — regardless of where they actually want to visit or what they actually want to do. The local government also takes a 40 yuan cut of each ticket sale, which they say goes to the further preservation of the city and associated sites — the veracity and logic of which has been debated by critics. Whatever the case, local businesses say that all the new mandatory entrance fee does is decreased their clientele and earnings.
The story of modern Fenghuang is a battle of small business vs. a big corporation that has quite literally bought the local government. Before the Yellow Dragon Cave Corporation took over, Fenghuang was little more than a poverty stricken backwater too insignificant to even have its old buildings demolished and redeveloped. The corporation came in, invested millions of dollars, restorated, revitalized, and promoted the city, and turned it into one of the top tourist destinations in the country. Rightfully, the locals, who had their communities turned upside down in this process, capitalized on the influx of tourists and money. Now the two sides remain permanently locked in turmoil and conflict: the corporation wants to hog the pie they bought and baked while the locals want enough bites to earn a living, run their businesses, and to mitigate what they had sacrificed in the development process.
Avoiding the fee
I walked across a long, ornately decorated bridge that had arches that dipped down into the Tuo river below, turned down a side alley, and attempted to enter the historic district. A ticket collector stood in my way and notified me that I would need to pay to enter. Of course. I told her that I didn’t want to pay, among other arguments, and she just shrugged and allowed me to pass. The entry fee was just imposed a few months before, and it’s controversial nature — along with the fact that it’s an attempt to block off a functioning city district from the outside world — seems to have left many gaps in its actual enforcement. This became even more apparent as I discovered that there are at least three or four other ways to get into the the city via smaller bridges and footpaths that have so far been kept completely free of ticket collectors (see map below).
Once inside, it was apparent that Tuo River Town was a carnival. Though pretty much no automobiles were allowed inside, the congestion level was still absolute. Rather than cars, motorcycles, and buses I was being run down, pushed to the the wayside, and blockaded by truly massive amounts of tourists.
Huge tour groups following guides with megaphones or microphones wired to mini amplifiers ruled this place. They roved in mobs of twenty to thirty, and stomped where they pleased like herds of cattle — each tourist kept on the tail of the tourist in front of them without regard for who or what they trampled. Entire streets were completely blocked off by these hoards, who didn’t seem to care that there were literally dozens to hundreds of people struggling to get by them.
Clearly, the ancient Miao didn’t zone this city for 6.9 million tourists per year.
Overcrowding was one of the reasons the government says the entrance fee was implemented, but it clearly was a measure that was not hitting its mark. From what I could tell, it was the hoards of package tourists being led around and blocking the streets who were the problem, not the stray independent tourists who the costly entrance fee impacts and discourages from visiting.
As I swam through the sea of tourists, it became apparent that Fenghuang was a prime example of typical Chinese take on the cultural zoo:
The Cultural Zoo is a cultural tradition or art that is reenacted or revived in modern times in the name of tourism or as part of a cultural preservation movement. The result is generally the portrayal of the most visible elements of a tradition that are acted out in ways that are removed from the meanings they once had when practiced as a way of life or a true profession.
While “cultural zoos” are created all over the world to extract tourism dollars and stimulate modern industry in places traditionally devoid of such, the Chinese seem to have taken this concept a little more literally. There are genuine minority villages all over the south of the country that have been fenced in and opened up for Han tourists to walk through and gawk at their country’s backwards/ exotic people as though they really were exhibits in a zoo.
While Fenghuang wasn’t this bad, it exemplified the same idea. Photographers taking pictures of Han Chinese people dressed up in the traditional Miao clothing is one of the locals’ main industries. Pulled taffy was being made in the streets and sold in shops. Jewelers were pounding silver on wooden stumps to attract people into their stores. At least a dozen shops specialized in selling apparently traditional drums. Girls walked around in traditional robes and dangly silver headdresses luring visitors into shops selling overpriced replicas. Street vendors were everywhere selling anything that even appeared “ethnic.” There were even places where you could sit and have Garra Rufa fish suck the dead skin off your feet.
The show was everywhere. If something about Miao or Tujia culture could be simplified, exotic-fied, and sold, it was being offered up in the narrow, stone lined alleys of Tuo River Town. No potentially profitable aspect of minority traditions seemed to have been left unturned, and the streets of this place were an absolute orgy of cultural consumption.
I took refuge from the fray at a small food stand that was selling tiny pitas stuffed with meat, noodles, and vegetables. They looked pretty good, so I asked the price. The woman behind the counter told me that one type was five rmb, another was six.
“I want one for six yuan,” I said in Chinese.
The woman smiled big and complimented me on my use of Mandarin. We chatted while she made my sandwich. She seemed friendly, and as I demonstrated reasonable proficiency in the language we were speaking, I was taken off guard by what came next.
I passed over a ten yuan note to pay for my six yuan snack, and the women promptly flung it into a drawer, closed it, and just stared at me as though everything was legit and normal.
“Can I have my change?” I asked.
“There is none. The price is 10 yuan.”
I was being hosed. But this wasn’t the normal hosing, where the vendor banks on the fact that they can create some self-doubt based on linguistic misunderstanding, but was a plain and simple “Fuck you.”
The woman raised her arms up in the air as though feigning innocence, and I could not hold back an exasperated laugh. The rip off was too brash, too brazen, too in my face to bother resisting. I could of yelled, made a scene, and got my change, but the insight gained from the encounter was worth the loss:
It was clear that I was in a place where the locals would rather sell their souls than return 4 yuan worth of change. That 50 cents bought me a glimpse into the heart of Fenghuang that may have otherwise remained opaque.
The local culture of this place has quickly adapted to the influx of tourists, and the result isn’t always pretty. From an article called “Who Benefits?: Tourism Development in Fenghuang County, China” by Xianghong Feng:
My first visit to Fenghuang County was in early 2002, just before any signs of its large scale and capital-intensive tourism boom started showing. Tuo River Town, the capital of Fenghuang County, was quiet and peaceful, an ideal getaway place where urban people could experience a slow and laid-back traditional lifestyle with scenic mountain and river views. But when I went back to Tuo River Town in the summer of 2005 to start carrying out my dissertation research,
my impressions were much different.
Original spontaneous hospitality is transforming itself into commercialism. I was in Fenghuang County in early
2002, just before the PATT began to promote tourism development. At that time, local people were very hospitable. Those I interviewed on the street often invited me to have lunch or dinner with their families. Much has changed since then. In the summer of 2005, a Hmong woman told me that if I wanted to take pictures of her, I must either buy some of her knitted goods or pay her for the pictures. There were no public restrooms available on the streets for tourists. Many local
households hang signs in front of their houses: “Bathroom, one yuan/ person,” charging tourists for using their bathrooms. Local people stop tourists or even follow them to try to sell their crafts or to solicit tourists to favor their family businesses, such as restaurants, family motels, or boat tours.
This sentiment was echoed by a lawyer from Wuhan that I met while sitting down by the bank off the Tuo river. This was the first time that she’d returned to Fenghuang after vising in 2006.
“They are not interested in you, they are only interested in money,” she said. “When I first came here in 2006 the people were very friendly. They would give you a ride on their ship for no money, just to introduce you to their town. The thinking of the local people is very different. They only think of money, money, money. They don’t want to introduce you to their town, they just want your money.”
I suppose pulling globs of sugary candy beats working in the mines, I imagine tending to exfoliating fish is better than fishing on the river, I would guess that taking photos of tourists dressed up in your traditional costume is more enjoyable that working out in the fields, it’s my take that running a hotel is a lot more profitable than toiling in a factory, so who could blame the locals in Fenghuang for responding to the tourism boom in full. I suppose their main options are assimilate into Han culture and go off and work in some factory in a big city, labor in their traditional villages, or reap some benefit from the branding and sale their culture. Option #3 seems to have become a popular one, and even many former migrant workers have now been able to return to their homes in Fenghuang and make a living because of the tourism influx.
The newfound tourism industry has created new livelihoods for many locals in Fenghuang, but it has been reported that the locals don’t profit from this boom as much as it may seem on the surface. Though tourism brings 5.3 billion yuan ($856 million) per year into the town, a huge percentage of this money is extracted by the YDCC and the other big tourism operators, leaving only the scraps at the bottom of the barrel for the locals to contend for.
I got a taste of the degree to which Fenghuang had truly been transformed later on that day. I was sitting in a cheap restaurant overlooking the river as dusk turned into night. The lights were then flipped on and the music began blaring. The riverfront turned into an all out party. The traditional wooden houses on stilts that flanked the river revealed themselves to be dance clubs and bars. Literally dozens of them competed with each other for customers with magnificent arrays of bright neon lights and extremely loud music.
I walked down to the river bank, sat down, and for an hour just watch the show. Literally, tens of thousands of tourists had descended upon the riverfront, many were going clubbing, bar hopping, and getting totally and completely wasted. People were yelling, spilling beer, and jumping off the old ghats that lead to the water, they were hanging off of the traditional stilted porches, parasitic bar girls were hooking arms with potential host, and Miao women were enticing Han tourist to pay them to try on their ethnic costumes everywhere. In a way, what I was observing was remarkable: in all my travels, I’d never been in an ancient city transformed into a no-holds-barred party district.
My initial assessment that Fenghuang was a carnival turned out to be an understatement: this place was a free for all of excess and debauchery. Walking back through the slender alleys to my room was like running a gauntlet of hostesses, bar boys, drunken tourists, trinket sellers, portrait painters, and one overtly excited dude who desperately wanted me to let his fish bite the gunk off my toes.
Fenghuang was added to the culture category of the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2008, but the only culture I saw here was that of flashing neon lights, the thump thumping of club music, and drunken tourists being served by locals who seemed only too eager to exchange dignity for money.
By the following morning I had already grown weary of being in the middle of this feeding frenzy, and escaped to the outskirts of town. I walked along the river until I was far away from the hoards, all alone in a quiet area that only had few small rice alcohol producing facilities. I was finally able to breath deep and take a look at the landscape:
Verdant mountains rose up from the banks of a river that was so clear I could see all the way down to the layer of garbage that had settled blanket-like upon the bottom. I tried to ignore the rampant eutrophication, that comes from discharging sewage and other pollutants into the river, and the local who discovered a livelihood for himself removing the oxygen sucking aquatic plants with a net. Rampant tourism means rampant pollution, and the Tuo River seems to be a prime mechanism for shipping waste right out of the city.
The thought of what this place must have been like before the tourism invasion became too onerous, so I stopped into a local wine factory and began chatting with the people who worked there. They were relaxing in deck chairs, just watching the day sunny day go by, and seemed to enjoy talking to me without feeling the urge to force their product down my throat and their hands into my pockets. I found myself smiling, as this was the first genuine conversation I’d had since arriving in Fenghuang.
I then bought some sticks of fried minnows and crabs along with a mashed together shrimp cake, for which I was charged what seemed to be a fair price without needing to haggle or fight for my change. The woman who sold them to me laughed as she watched me photographing my lunch like some kind of weirdo, and I realized that Tuo River Town is a pretty nice, friendly place once you get out of it.
Because Fenghuang was left an underdeveloped backwater for so long it now has something to sell. New, unauthentic river towns have become in vogue throughout China, and they are being built in masses, apparently to make up for the genuine ones that were wiped away to make room for dams, high rises, shopping malls, ugly housing blocks, and factories over the past few decades. China’s propensity for demolishing its history has not always proved to be the best economic recourse for their future, as restorated water towns are now colossal cash cows.
But you don’t have to be a spiteful old cultural purist to suggest that it may have been better if Fenghuang was torn down long ago along with most of China’s other ancient water towns. The place has been turned into a capitalistic cesspool, as big business and locals alike tear each other to shreds to extract as much money possible from visitors. It has become clear that if China’s first “Cultural Revolution” didn’t destroy a place the second one surely will. Only at the fore of this modernization movement isn’t idealistic Maoist physically dismantling ancient cities but unabashed capitalists reconstructing historic sites for the sole pursuit of profit.
In the New China, everything can be commodified — even ancient cities full of people. Fenghuang has been bought, sold, exploited, and, eventually, will be sucked dry. A common criticism of Chinese tendencies is that, historically speaking, they don’t know when to stop. Fenghuang should be an epicenter for tourism, visitors should descend here in droves — the place is unique, diverse, and absolutely gorgeous — but its vibrant color is quickly being drained from it by developers and locals alike who have taken the profit motive a few ticks too far.