This is a necessarily incomplete account of the tour I made and gave in Lijiang for COART festival. It is partial because I was leading just one part of the performance and did not get to see the other parts of it as the public did. The tour of the village was organised by Chinese performance makers Xiao Ke and Zihan Zhou who delegated sections of it to different artists featured in the Now Theatre Programme of the festival, while they took care of the overall system and provided two additional points on the tour, too.
Unlike some of the chaotic performance stories you hear coming out of Chinese festivals that Western artists tell with a kind of 'I survived it' pride, this event was well organised, well attended and began on time. It started with the public being invited to join a Wechat group set up for the tour. Wechat is the essential app in China right now and it is like Facebook and Skype rolled into one. There was a lighting designer I met at the festival who said he doesn't use name cards anymore, he only works through Wechat. He is far from alone. It was through this group chat that the instructions and suggestions for the tour were passed onto the public. The messages were both practical, telling people where to go, and also artistic, suggesting things to think about or look at.
These messages brought the public to different points around the city where they might encounter a performance such as this dance improvisation on a bridge.
I know a little more about this performance by a young man from the local Naxi ethnicity as it was his which led directly into my part of the work. A theme of the festival was how the different ethnic minorities in this area relate to it as their home. Throughout the festival there were many music and dance performances, as well as documentary film screenings, about the various ethnicities in South West China. My personal favourite was the film Yak Dung (at first given the rough and ready translation 'Bullshit') that seemed to suggest this plentiful residue could be used for absolutely everything. The young man on the horse sang a Naxi song while riding one of the stout horses that drag tourists around the village in decorative carriages. We saw him the previous night singing karaoke in a bar and he is a proper entertainer telling nightclub jokes between numbers. That was fun but I was glad to see this other side of him too. The bar, I should add, was notable for the drinking games already laid out on the table for guests, which of course we played, but I digress.
I awaited my tour group alongside super-translator Zhu Miyi, both of us standing on the same plastic stools that I used for a different performance of mine 'The Customer Is Always Wrong' the previous evening. I like recycling in general and artistic recycling in particular, so these were an ideal portable stage lifting us above the heads, and inevitable phones, of the public.
The performance was essentially a miniature Tour of All Tours. I introduced the idea of it and then stopped in three locations to talk about different tours that might be had in Lijiang. It had to be necessarily short as I was part of this larger performance and it was being given in two languages: English and Mandarin. I gave a performance in Mandarin the previous day which, with proper preparation and sticking to a pre-written script I can just about manage. Something more improvised like this is quite beyond me right now, however, so it had to be translated, which of course slowed things down considerably. I was blessed with excellent translation and by keeping things to a modest length brought a new energy to the procession without hijacking it and keeping the crowd hostage.
I began with an account of ascending Jade Dragon Snow Mountain a tour I had taken a few days previously. When giving a tour like this, where I project other location's tours onto the site we are in, I always like to make sure I include at least one actual tour from the place I am giving the performance. That gives me a better sense of the location and how the other stories I tell might fit in. It also gives me more material for future tours and, I should admit, it is a nice way to mix business with a little pleasure. The mountain was out of sight from street level, but I spotted a painter's studio by the side of the street with a large, not so subtle, painting of the mountain which he was willing to exhibit outside. This formed a suitable backdrop.
The other two tours I covered were Political Tours' China at the Crossroads Tour, one which I have not taken myself but have pieced together from internet research and a very curious one which I took in Fujian Province back in 2011. This was a tour of a Hakka ethnic minority village which, upon arrival we discovered was on strike! The villagers were locked in a heated dispute with the Chinese tour bus operators who wanted to replace the local guides with their own. As a small group of Westerners we were not a part of this story so were quietly allowed in round the back and shown around by ourselves. It was a exceptional moment of peace and quiet in a normally bustling Chinese tourist site.
My mini tour completed, I handed over to another musician who serenaded the group onwards encountering another performance before we rushed through the crowd to the village square where there was a musical finale and much swapping of Wechat contacts. It was a great opportunity to test out how I might approach a Chinese tourist destination and l found, like so many things in China, it quickly became political and I needed to exercise discretion in how to tell the stories and which features to highlight. A pattern I've started to notice in Chinese tourist resorts is that they are all a bit the same: the same selection of small shops and restaurants which finally crowd out everything else turning the place into a tourist consumption zone. Whilst this pattern has its obvious shortcomings it does mean I can insert myself into it relatively easily providing my ironic and critical descriptions of the tours on offer, which are also somewhat standarised yet also diverse in their formats. I saw in Lijiang, for example, horse tours, carriage tours, 4-wheel drive buggy tours, shopping tours, trekking tours and historical tours without looking hard at all. The particularities of each of these tours, especially when they go a bit wrong, can be quite revealing and are anything but standarised. Lijiang proved every bit as rich in possibilities as a tour of a Western tourist location like Bath, so I will definitely have to make a point of developing a tour for a location like this in the not too distant future.