Saturday 8 July 2017

The Subtle Allure of Getting Lost in Jimei

Here we are at the start of our Way-Losing tour of Jimei District, Xiamen. Previously, I have always been cast in the role of the visiting tour guide who tries to get the locals lost. This time round there were some other visitors too, and none of us could precisely say we were local to Southern China, though a couple of us knew their way around Jimei.

The tour was distinguished by torrential rain that fell in sheets shortly after we began. We jumped into the first bus we saw, then another, and this finally led us far from the centre to an area none of us had been to before. The rain abated long enough for us to go looking for a local 'Tire Museum' but drizzle started again and we took shelter around a table dominated by a Teletubbie. I was reminded of performance artist, Gary Stevens, who lent his voice to these creatures, as we sat drinking inexpensive beer in this makeshift bar. Seeing as some of the group had been looking for a bar all along, it worked out just fine.

One of the attractions of a Way-Losing Tour is that there is not too much pressure on having to be led to anything special. On the majority of more conventional tours, you expect to be lead to supposedly important sites and, more often than not, the locations are ever so slightly disappointing. They are rarely the guide's own personal choices, they simply comprise the city's canonical geography and the guide is there to explain it for you. With a Way-Losing Tour, however, places come and go like weather and it is up to you and your fellow way-losers to find significance in them. This puts the tourist in a more active position.

When looking at sites like this and creating your own narratives from them, you have to look a lot more closely than usual. With so many sites and threads in the air I started trying to make connections between them all. Imposing sense on experience is hard, but inevitable; looking for that sense in unfamiliar places was where the creative work lay for me. 

The Blue Mountains, some way off in the distance, was where my imagination kept drifting off to. They exerted a pervasive influence that transcended the muck, mire and petty affairs of the increasingly scrappy streets below. 

Earlier on in the afternoon we had been talking about the shared bike schemes and then we saw an Ofo bike far from the city, cutting its way through one of the many small lakes that the village had been engulfed in. Looking closely at the the village aesthetic I came to see how it was different to the city's but also how, in places, the village popped up in the city too. This got me thinking that to understand how the city works, and why it looks the way it does, it is essential to also understand the outlying villages like these, too. 

A field that marked the furthest point we would reach, and where Xiamen truly ended, provided the set for this domestic scene. There was a fair amount of creative work quietly going on in the background and this got me thinking that this could all be foregrounded in a creative Way-Losing Tour. This was a mixed group, however, with people here for different reaso so this was not going to be that sort of tour. 

Afterwards we ate food in the adjoining town. We got lucky and it turned out to be pretty good. 

It was not over. A bus took us back onto the island and into the city. Weaving our way back I realised that there must be many more buses like the one we took, connecting the villages to the city, something I had underestimated before. Spat out in Sibei, we stumbled into a rare demonstration: Xiamen University professors complaining about housing resale rights. Unable to get a bus or taxi back because they were clogging the road, I realised that on a Way-Losing Tour, problems do not have to be perceived as problems: they are opportunities to discover more about the place and people. This resistance, or will of the city, is one of the things that is expected, even necessary. The frame of the Way-Losing Tour transforms problems, well it has so far, and demands an interesting balance of being engaged but also accepting of just what fate has in store.


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