Thursday, 13 May 2021

The Flying Tigers Tour of Changting

This tour started off as something quite different to what it became: a domesticated cat that turned into a tiger. The group I was visiting the town with were to be shown the historical town centre of Changting but as it was raining and the organizers simply said, if you want to see it,  walk to your left seven minutes and look around for yourselves. This did indeed bring us to a brightly lit building that sat over the remains of the town wall.

Few seemed keen on braving persistent rain so my group was just three European guys. We had the idea of looking round the old town and seeing if there was an Irish Bar or something similar. We traipsed up and down sodden historical alleys and stumbled across a distinctly 21st Century toilet. Outside it has a screen that shows how many cubicles are inside and which are currently in use. In spite of this, there was still no toilet paper.

More or less giving up hope of finding that mythical Guinness we dropped into an insipid cafe then hit the street again. This sign caught my attention. I had known there was an American airbase in Changting and had even asked about it previously but our guide answered vaguely and changed the subject. Now we had stumbled across some traces of this history. 

Next to the banner were some pictures of the steely Claire Lee Chennault. A retired Texan airman, he was in China in 1937 doing a three-month air surveying contract then was propelled into the rank of colonel, aviation instructor and procurer for Chiang Kai-Shek's air force. His is a swashbuckling war story. Working basically as a paid mercenary for the Chinese, he formed a volunteer air corp known as The Flying Tigers which recruited in the US and fought very effectively in China. They were later incorporated into the regular American air force which he re-entered as a Major. He emerged as a war hero, finished an honorary Lieutenant General and is buried in Arlington. In all the accounts, however, he comes over not as military brass but instead as "one of the boys." He is even meant to have opened a brothel in Guilin for his men with the justification "his men needed sex and it was better to have his "boys" visit a brothel that was regularly inspected to reduce venereal diseases."

As we were lighting up the pictures with our phones and studying them a man stepped around the corner and ushered us inside. We walked through a restaurant and into the 'museum' which was closed. He turned the lights on and showed us around. This was not really a guided tour, it worked more on the level of, here are some things, take a look.

One interesting thing that the pictures made much of was Claire's second wife Anna Chennault and the couple's two Chinese American children. There is an interesting history here: after the war the family returned to Chennault's home in Louisiana, where there was still a law forbidding marriages between whites and non-whites, and to a town where there were no non-whites. His status as a war hero apparently silenced any objections to his Chinese wife and mixed-race family. Little of the detail of these stories was conveyed in the exhibition itself, what came over more was a sense of gratitude for help in time of war and pride in connection to the outside world. The other feeling I got was that the exhibition did not need to happen and nobody in authority was going to make it happen. This was one person's passion project. 

This history is one that is not celebrated today, indeed it is more or less written out of the official script as history is viewed as a resource to draw lessons from, and there are no useful lessons to be gained here. This suppression of the history was very clear in the official tours of the town. We were told about the bombing of the town by the Japanese but it was never mentioned why it might have been bombed: it had an American airstrip. Later I even asked our guide, "where was the American airbase?" She said it was very far, a town four or five hours drive away. When I showed her these pictures from the museum she corrected herself and said it was just outside Changting. This conspicuous silence is due to the deteriorating political relationship with the US and it is manifested at the micro level up and down the country. This Flying Tigers collection was, therefore, surprising to find as it was clearly out of step with current policy. That might explain why the place felt it necessary to include some red references so nobody was in any doubt about their patriotism.

We had not forgotten our original purpose of finding an Irish Bar and by now it was woefully clear that was out of the question. Since the guy from the restaurant had been kind enough to show us around the collection, we ordered beers and settled into our Tsingtao. The place was dry, it had a warm wooden feel to it and they brought out a plate of complimentary peanuts. I was definitely warming to it then down the stairs came a Chinese colleague of ours, also on the trip. His group had found this place too and they were upstairs eating and drinking. He giggled and brought down a brown 1.5 liter bottle. He invited us to try "Red Army Coca-Cola." It was sweet, dark rice wine. It was quite easy to drink but between the bottle looking like an oversized hand-grenade and its earthy taste, I was sure it was perfect hangover juice. So, while we didn't find Michael's Blarney Stone, we did enjoy a stroke of luck and got both a nice place to drink and an unexpected tour of the Flying Tigers Museum of Changting.

Monday, 3 May 2021

Red Tourism: how I got surrounded by the Red Army in Changting, China

This place, officially known as the Former Site of the Soviet Government of Fujian Province,Red Tourist is a classic 'Red Tourist' attraction. That term really deserves a bit of explanation as, on the face of it, it sounds about as awkward as Marxist-Leninist Ice Cream. Basically, Chinese domestic tourism has taken off in a big way over the last 10 years and people now travel much more within the country than they ever did before. At the same time, the communist party has discovered that it can insert itself into this trend by creating sites that celebrate its history and amplify its ideology. This is such a site.

The town is clearly not used to foreign visitors and nor was the guide. He seemed friendly enough and we had a translator, but many of his points and stories just seemed to go nowhere as we had no context for them. What did slowly become clear was that we were visiting a historic site that at one time was a communist party centre.

We were told that Zhou Enlai, Mao's long-term sideman, described Changting as Little Red Shanghai back in the early 30s when it was under communist control. The meaning here is that you could get anything in Changting that you could get in Shanghai and even more, so plentiful and rich was the town. I'm quite willing to believe it was a prosperous countryside town in the early thirties when it was incorporated into the Chinese Soviet Republic. How long that remained the case is a question and that it had everything Shanghai had and more, stretches credulity. This lead to two observations. The first is that this notion of it being better than Shanghai should be taken more on the level of propaganda, though that didn't stop one Chinese man on the coach repeating it like it was fact. The second is that the term soviet was used several times and when I asked whether and how much the Soviet Union were involved, the translator and guides did not answer the question. They pretended the question was something else or just flat ignored it. 

Here, the guided recited the poetry of Mao in a deep and meaningful voice. This was a performance he obviously gave quite regularly and he looked a little bit pleased with it afterwards. The rehabilitation of Mao, who was at one point officially declared 70% good 30% bad, seems more or less complete.

We were told about the many battle victories of the Red Army who were stationed and recruited in Changting in the early 30s but we were not told about their heavy defeat which precipitated the Long March. This form of history telling that only focusses on edifying episodes from the past can lead to the listeners coming to completely false impressions. I myself had to go and look up the history after this tour as it left far more questions than answers. Like with the other Changting tour I took, I have the feeling that the guides are not used to people asking questions or approaching their tour in a critical manner, so the many gaps in their narrative have never had to have been smoothed over.

Outside it was the turn of the school groups: teenagers dressed up in red army uniform and sneakers. There were a number of such groups and they seemed to be the staple duty visitor on the morning I went. Each group had both their school teacher and a military person in charge of them. These trips are a form of day out for the local schools and they are justified as historical and ideological education. When the group spotted me they seemed to forget ideology for a moment and they swarmed over and wanted their photo taken with the tall westerner, somewhat to the annoyance of their military handler. One or two said, "Welcome to China" something I have not heard in a long time. This was when it truly struck me I was in the countryside where you get to play at being a minor celebrity just by being foreign. The kids were spontaneous and pretty friendly and I must admit finding myself to be the star attraction in a red tourist site made this visit an awful lot more fun. 

Sunday, 2 May 2021

The Foreign Expert's Tour a Chinese Environmental Project

This tour was one organized for a small coach-load of foreign experts, of which I was one, and their Chinese handlers. We drove about half and hour out of Changting, not a big place in its own right, till we arrived more or less in the sticks. It was raining pretty hard as the guide lead us up a slope to our first stop: a tree that Xi Jinping had personally planted. This seemed to be the centerpiece of the park and between that and the driving rain, it got the tour off on a distinctly anti-climatic note. I had that same sinking feeling you get going to B-list tourist attractions the world over: this is a place of minor interest trying to pump itself up. 

Drying ourselves off inside the visitor centre, we were treated to a mind-numbing video that featured lots of aerial photography. If you have sat through videos like Amazing China you'll be more than familiar with this shock and awe aesthetic.

We came to an exhibit that showed President Xi planting the tree we had visited earlier. Not only was there the picture to prove it, there were also the holy relics used in the act: the plastic bucket, the spade and the sun hat that the then governor of Fujian Province used to plant the tree. As he was not the president at that time but just the governor of a minor province, I started to wonder why the park had kept the ephemera of his visit, as the personality cult only seemed to have started later.

The visitor centre felt like its purpose was not so much to educate people about environmental protection but rather to convince them that the government was, and always has, been doing a good job. Something, however, didn't add up. In general they pursued the same general line as this article in The Global Times"In the 1940s, the area of soil erosion in Changting county, East China's Fujian Province, was nearly 1.5 million mu (1,000 square kilometers), covering one third of the county's land area. However, after 70 years of efforts, the county has undergone a complete change, and little trace of the past can be seen." Yet when I asked the guide why there was so much erosion in the first place the guide said it was because the people were so poor they had to cut down all the trees for power. This doesn't exactly sit well beside the description of Changting as an extremely prosperous town during the early 1930, a so-called 'little red Shanghai.' It must have fallen from that position after that time and indeed in this photo they show the barren hills of 1988 and 1989. The most obvious conclusion is that the real conservation work only began in the 90s.

The videos that are shown around the centre are generally all like this: they attempt to beat you into submission. They all feature this sort of stirring heroic voice which, I heard, is popular with old people. The thing that struck me about the videos is they all used demo versions of the software; you can clearly see DEMO written in the corner of all of the videos. This, how should I say it, broke the spell of the park's magnificence.   

By the time the tour came to its inevitable conclusion, a group photo holding a red banner supplied by the work unit, I had had more than enough of the place. I felt like they were taking me for a fool and just spoon feeding me propaganda that I was expected to regurgitate whole. There was indeed a team of China Daily reporters who just happened to be waiting for us on site, interviewing us and expecting us to do just that. I gave vague replies that would neither land me in trouble nor be of any use for their article. With distance I now am left with a different impression still. As something of an environmentalist myself I am pleased to see this work taking place. It should not be taken for granted. What's more, I get the impression that China is starting to make greater efforts at environmental protection than before and that this park is not an isolated phenomenon. Given the one-party-system that is in place, particularly as it currently is, it is not at all surprising that the park seems to be more about politics than it is about nature. So while that side of the visitor centre can produce an unintended effect, at least with foreign visitors not accustomed to such sycophancy, we should not allow that to obscure the fact that something meaningful is still taking place. That, finally, is what will matter more in the long run.

Sunday, 18 April 2021

The Quick-Fix Photo Tour of Shapowei

I have a passion for quick-fixes and have been taking photos of them for the last five years. It seemed like it was about time to share a bit of the fun with other people and how better to do that than in the form of a tour! This is, therefore, a new tour and a slightly different format to my previous ones: it is a photo workshop as much as it was a guided tour. Still, I must admit: I am back on the street and giving a tour once more. It feels good to be back!

The tour is the opposite of most Xiamen tours in the sense that, instead of stopping at one scenic site after another and working our way through the checklist, we seem to stop at things like this: a plastic bag tied around wires on the forgotten side of a building. There is, however, just as much to say about this sort of place as there is about the statue of some leader or an exquisite beach, this assemblage of plastic is raw creativity.

The sort of tours I like are open to unexpected things happening and this one was no exception. As I was waiting to begin the tour I got talking to an Italian student who is studying at the university. I ended up convincing him to come along on the tour and he made a useful contribution to the discussion. What's more, when I set the participants the challenge finding and taking a picture of a quick-fix themselves, he took me to his single-room apartment as it is a nest of quick-fixes. It is also in a fashionable part of the city and costs just 800 rmb a month, that's about £80, so it's no wonder it is like this.

This is the sort of picture the participants came up with themselves. What I like about these pictures, when they are at their best, is that they reveal a story. You can see how someone went about filling in the space and how they worked it out as they went along. What's more, you start to see recurring problems when you record a number of these quick-fixes. With these recurring problems you see common solutions but so too do you notice innovative ones, some of which are exemplary while others could be classed as bodges. Recording the whole range is worthwhile. 

We finished the tour in a community space where we looked at the photos and I gave some advice on how to improve them, both when taking them and through editing. This was, finally a photography workshop in the shape of a tour. It felt good to invite the participants to be active in the tour by first taking pictures then later spotting their own quick-fixes. What I learnt from giving the tour is that taking a good image is not only a technical task it is also deeply connected to thinking visually. It is necessary to have a clear idea of what you are looking at and where the focus of it is, in order to capture the phenomenon with clarity. This has lead me to realize that this tour could be useful to anyone who has to use images when presenting research as it helps to bring the idea of the image and the reality of it, into greater congruence. Learning in action.