I was in Shanghai for an ethnomusicological conference. On the day-off, we had the option to go on excursion. I chose to go to Wu Zhen, a ‘water town’ – a village with a lot of little canals and many boats and bridges. Like Venice, maybe (never been there); or Giethoorn, if you look for a Dutch equivalent.
It was hot. There were many tourists (most of them, of course, Chinese), who all had paid in order to be able to visit the village. The village brimmed with tourist shops. Obviously it lives from tourism these days, like for example Schiermonnikoog.
When we were back in Shanghai, I bumped into a fellow ethnomusicologist acquaintance, someone researching Chinese music. I asked him where he had been. He had also been to Wu Zheng, and was furious. “Why did they take us to such a stupid tourist village! Couldn’t they have brought us to a real Chinese village? There are many of them around. Much more interesting. And at least there are real people there!”
I understand the feeling and appreciate it, although I myself don’t worry too much about being a tourist at periods – every role has its pros and contras. But many ethnomusicologists are busy with research into the real life of ordinary people – and then tourist representations of real life are generally not too interesting indeed.
That is: if one takes tourist attractions such as Wu Zheng to stand for ‘the real thing’. The other option, of course, is to take Whu Zheng for what it is: a tourist attraction. I found it rather interesting to see how the Chinese handled their version of heritage tourism.
And, contrary to my fellow ethnomusicologist, I wasn’t missing ‘real people’. Because why should a tourist shop owner, a tourist temple guard, or a tourist from a Chinese suburb, be less ‘real’ than a Chinese traditional villager? Beats me.