Thursday, November 27, 2014

To Pray and To Play: Attending Vietnamese Festivals

                                                               by Jim Goodman

festival procession, Hanoi
       Rising prosperity and increasing modernization have not undermined religious traditions in Vietnam.  To the contrary, religion appears to be enjoying a national revival. It never really disappeared during the decades of war and austerity, just went private.  Now in the more relaxed atmosphere of contemporary Vietnam, along with material improvements in their lives, people are freer to indulge in their religious beliefs and customs, to spend money on temple donations and making their annual festivals bigger and better than the oldest villager can remember ever having witnessed.
       Devotees throng the temples on these dates, dressed in their very best clothes and jewelry, bearing offerings for their deities, murmuring prayers and making requests for divine assistance of one kind or another.  Village elders, costumed in rick silk robes, carry out rituals.  And in the courtyard stalls hawk incense sticks, flowers, woodcrafts, statues, mobiles and pendants, snacks and drinks, toy birds made from real bird feathers,  colored rice dough figurines, paper turtles and caterpillars on strings, cotton candy and other items.  The crowd consists mainly of religious-minded local folks, but also includes both residents and visitors whose interest in religion is token at best.  There have come for the same reason the devotees linger around the area after performing their rituals—because festivals are fun.
The dragon salutes the deity at the đình in Chèm village. 
        The Vietnamese word for festival, l hi, like the event itself, has two parts—the rituals (l) and the entertainment (hi).  Besides the scheduled hours for the formal rites carried out by village authorities, the festival program will also announce the entertainment, which sometimes might occur simultaneously with the rituals.  The nature and type of entertainment varies from place to place, as well as from year to year, perhaps depending upon whether it was a good year for agriculture that year.  It could include one or more kinds of participatory games and contests and/or a show staged for the festival audience.
       Actually, the rituals are a show as well, especially the processions.  Long lines of devotees march through the village or on the roads leading to it, bearing offerings, beating drums and playing musical instruments, carrying an ornate sedan chair housing an emblem of their deity, brandishing spears, lances, halberds and other weapons used to fight nefarious spirits.  Sometimes dragon dancers lead the way.  Sometimes the sedan chair-carrying sector proceeds to the river and boards a boat to collect water further out, to be used in the mc dc ritual back at the temple.
Thổ Khối's recalcitrant deity
       The most interesting mộc dục procession is that conducted by Thổ Khối village, across the river from Hanoi in Gia Lâm, 8th day of the 2nd lunar month.  Five deities, each housed in a separate palanquin carried by six bearers, participate in the long walk to the river.  Two of these deities are petulant, reluctant to go and make trouble the whole way.  A group of young women carry one and young men shoulder the other.  While the other three palanquins march in a stately manner, these two sway, tilt at such an angle they appear bound to topple, straighten up, then suddenly run backwards and forwards and scatter people out of their way. 
       Nobody stands in front of the palanquins and directs their movements.  None of the bearers stumbles or loses control.  Their unpredictable, erratic turns and tilts are in total synchronous coordination, as if they had rehearsed everything for weeks in advance.  But in fact they hadn’t.  They had just been selected for the task a couple days prior.  One of the bearers, a university student who spoke good English, told me there was no plan, no rehearsal and he himself didn’t understand why no one ever fell in spite of the chaotic movements.  “I want to go this way and something makes go another way.  I had no control over my movements.  Something else made me do what I did.”    He also claimed the other bearers felt the same way and no one could explain it.  He concluded that perhaps the spirits really did exist.
village elders conducting rituals
       Compared to the excitement of a Thổ Khối procession, or even the pomp and color of village contingents making their way to the festival site, the rituals at the temple are rather sedate.  A group of elderly men in long, embroidered silk tunics, shoes with upturned toes and tall, tasseled miters on their heads walk slowly and solemnly to the main altar, bow or kowtow, raise their arms in supplication, recite prayers and then basically repeat the procedure a few more times.  Then it’s the turn of the women, also in splendid silk attire, more solemn prayers and rites. The garments are all quite photogenic, of course, but without a special interest in the proceedings it’s a bit tedious to watch for very long.
quan họ singers o teh pond at Chùa Thấy
       All this takes some time, but the action is not confined to the temple altar.  Outside other shows may be taking place.  A local or visiting water-puppet troupe may be setting up a pavilion for a show in a nearby pond.  Quan họ singers from Bắc Ninh, popular at many northern festivals, could be performing in the vicinity. Sometimes they sing from a designated place.  Other times they sing while riding a boat in the temple compound’s pond, dressed in what used to be the traditional northern clothing. A stage might be in place for historical skits, the performance of Chinese-style tuồng opera or a drama from the indigenous chèo tradition.
evening stage show at a Hanoi festival
       Elsewhere the festival activity features contests and games.  Besides the games of skill and chance offered at the market area, this could include the very complex traditional card game called tổ tôm diếm, with an emcee sitting in a booth and an assistant handing out cards to several players seated next to a rack to hold them.  Another popular game, requiring no prior knowledge, is that of trying to whack a hanging gourd with a stick while blindfolded.  Participants pay 5000 đồng to try, for a reward far greater if they succeed.  But rare is the one who does succeed.
festival market at Cổ Lễ Pagoda
Chess is another popular festival game.  Players pair off against each other along one of the paths with portable sets.  The host đình (communal house) may have a chess field for either stick chess or a performance of human chess.  It may erect a small corral for cockfights, a popular rural amusement.  Owners spend years raising and training their birds.  The long-necked black ones are known for stamina and tenacity.  The white cocks are hot-tempered and quick to attack.  The multi-colored ones are warier and more flexible in their fighting tactics. At the festival in Chèm near Hanoi, the corral is used for catching a rooster while blindfolded.

       Less frequently than cockfighting, festival organizers will arrange fights between smaller birds, the arena being a table with a pair of adjoining cages.  The contestants are laughing thrushes.  The two cages sit flush to each other, with a thin slab of wood separating the openings in each.  When the emcee withdraws the slab the two thrushes fly up and peck at each other.  The fight goes on until one succeeds in noticeably wounding the other.
wrestling at the festival
       As for the contests, the participation ranges from just a pair, such as a wrestling match, to a large number of villagers, like a tug-of-war.  The tug-of-war could be between two neighborhoods of the host village, between the boys and the girls, or between the youth and the older generation, as at Tích Sơn in Vĩnh Phúc province.  In the latter case, it’s less of a contest and more of a ritual.  Villagers believe if the older men win the crops will be bounteous.  The youth are expected to put up a respectable fight, but lose, out of respect for the tradition.
       Some đình compounds have a pool that may be used, besides for floating quan họ performers, to stage contests in the water.  Lê Mât’s festival includes a fishing contest, while Thổ Khôị’s pool is the venue for a duck-catching contest.  Organizers release four ducks into the pool and a minute later five youths jump into the water to catch them.  The onlookers cheer on their favorites, who get to keep the duck they capture and it usually doesn’t take long. 
boat-racing team at Cổ Lễ Pagoda
       At the event I witnessed scarcely two minutes had passed before one lad emerged with a duck in hand and left the pool.  A few minutes later another contestant grabbed two ducks.  But the last duck somehow managed to elude its three pursuers for over fifteen minutes.  One boy tired of the effort and withdrew.  By this time the crowd began cheering on the duck.  It would appear to be cornered, dive under the water as the boys reached for it and emerge in the middle of the pool, far from its pursuers, to hearty applause, until captured at last.    
boat race at Thanh Toàn, near Huế
       Since many villages lie near streams or rivers, boat races might be on the festival program.  They could be boats with teams of rowers, like that held at Quan Lan Island’s festival, where teams practiced their skills in the days preceding the festival.  In the climactic encounter one side of the island competes against the other, in boats modeled after those used in the 13th century battle against the Mongols.  Or they could be races of several individuals paddling small boats, as at Thanh Toàn, near Huế, or basket boats as at Cát Bà Island.  Other places will hold swimming races, with lines of long floating bamboo poles separating the lanes.       
nón-making contest, Thanh Toàn
       Contests also take the form of competition making something.  At the Chùa Long Đôi Sơn festival, 18th day of the 4th month, the adjacent village of Đội Tam, a craft village specializing in drum manufacture, stages, naturally, a drum-making contest.  Pairs compete assembling the components of a large temple drum and fastening on its cowhide head.  In Thanh Toàn teams of women race each other to make the traditional conical cap (nón la) popular all over rural Vietnam.  In these kinds of contests speed cannot be achieved at the price of skill.  Emcees inspect the results before announcing the winner.  The drum has to sound right.  The conical cap must be perfectly put together.
cooking contest, Thanh Toàn
       Several northern villages include cooking contests in their festival programs. The competitors are usually young, unmarried women and the spectators are largely older women with marriageable sons, on the lookout for a prospective daughter-in-law.  Contestants are rated both according to how skillfully they keep the fire going as well as how good the rice is at the end—fully cooked, nothing raw on top and no burns on the bottom.
       Rules and conditions vary.  At Tư Trang in Thanh Hoá the contest is held on bamboo boats and the designated fuel is dried sugar cane, which is more difficult to keep burning.  At Tích Sơn in Vĩnh Phúc the competitors first boil the rice over a wood fire in a copper pot and then empty it all into an earthen pot and finish the cooking over charcoal.  At Chuông, the conical hat village south of Hanoi,  the women cook while carrying a 6-7 month-old baby at the hip and simultaneously prevent a frog from leaping our of the chalk circle drawn around them.
cooking contest, Hai Bà Trưng festival, Hanoi
       At the Hai Bà Trưng festival in Hanoi the 8th and 9th days of the 2nd month contestants first start preparations on the ground, lighting the fire under the pot.  Then they suspend the cooking pot and the fire from a shouldered pole, stand up and walk around.  They have to keep the fire going while in motion and not let the rice boil over.  And of course, in the end the rice has to be perfectly cooked.
       In another location it might just be how fast competing teams can prepare a certain local dish, with all its peculiar garnishes.  The race could end in a tie, with both results as tasty as required.  But no real disappointment follows.  The point of the contests is entertainment; thrilling for the participants and amusing for the spectators.  Like the shows and the games, they demonstrate that Vietnamese religious festivals are not just dour ceremonials but also embrace the secular enjoyments of life.  Religion doesn’t have to be a strictly serious affair.  It can also involve a lot of fun.
traditional quan họ singer at Chùa Thấy
                                                                             * * *                                                                          


Monday, November 17, 2014

The Eastern Shore of Dali’s Erhai Lake

                                              by Jim Goodman

Golden Shuttle Island (Jinsuodao)
       A major reason for Dali’s popularity as a travel destination is its unrivaled natural setting.  It lies on a long, lakeside plain of roughly 2000 meters altitude, flanked by the heavily forested Azure Mountains, with snow-capped peaks over 4000 meters high. 18 streams tumble down the slopes and flow into the ear-shaped lake called Erhai, Yunnan’s second largest body of water, around 42 km long and 3.5-7.5 km wide.  The lower, mostly barren and ruddier Phoenix Mountains bound Erhai’s eastern shore, lying much closer to the lake, reducing the amount of land suitable for cultivation and therefore the number of villages.
      Most visitors to the area confine themselves to the western side of the lake.  Dali Old Town and most of the ancient pagodas, temples and historical relics lie here.  Cable cars take people to temples up the mountains for views of the lake and the plain, itself filled with Bai, Hui and Han villages, rice fields and vegetable gardens.  Butterfly Spring and popular tourist destinations like Zhoucheng, a Bai village specializing in tie-dyed fabrics, and Xichou, formerly an important stopover on the old Tea and Horses Road to Tibet, are in the northern part of this plain.
Bai houses on Jinsuodao
       All of these places will be swarming with visitors practically any time of year.  In contrast, except for Wase on market day and Nanzhao Island, a fancy theme park near Shuanglang at the north end of the lake, where large tour boats from Xiaguan make a daily call, the eastern shore of Erhai attracts few visitors. Yet an excursion there means a look at a traditional Bai way of life less disturbed by tourist influences or commercial development.  The few guesthouses are basically designed for simple overnight stays for itinerant merchants.  The restaurants mainly cater to fellow villagers too busy to cook their own food.  Fishing and farming constitute the traditional Bai way of life here.  On market days the people sell their products to each other and visitors won’t find tables hawking tourist souvenirs and fake antiques. 
       Almost directly across the lake from Dali Old Town is the eastern shore’s first attraction when coming up from Xiaguan—Golden Shuttle Island (Jinsuodao).   A rocky, narrow islet 1500 meters long, so named for its shuttle-like shape, low in the middle with a hill at each end, it lies a little offshore about 3 km south of the large Bai village of Haidong.  Ferries take visitors across to the island.  Most of its stone and gray brick houses, some with whitewashed walls, stand on the eastern side where the ferries land, beside a row of umbrellas shading vending stalls offering local products like dried fish, snails, herbs and a local acorn.

temple interior on Jinsuodao
       The hundred or more Bai families here depend mainly on fishing.  No real farms exist on the island, only vegetable gardens.  During the Nanzhao Era, coterminous with the Tang Dynasty, Jinsuodao was a summer retreat for the royal family.  The king had a palace here of red walls and yellow tiles, a fishing pier, garden and a tower for viewing the lake.  All that is gone now, but the view remains, especially from atop either of the hills.  You can see the Three Pagodas from here and the blue-gray massif of the Azure Mountains towering behind them.
       The island’s houses are typical Bai compounds, with walls of stone and gray brick and tiled roofs, like those across the lake.  A small temple houses the local protector deity, with a couple of unusual statues inside.  One depicts a man with ludicrously long legs and another a man reaching for a fruit with his abnormally outstretched arm.  The island also has some underground caves, famous for their use in the winter of 1872 to conceal remnants of Du Wenxiu’s army after his death in Dali and the collapse of his rebel state.
Haidong houses and farms
       Looking north from Golden Shuttle Island the shoreline bends sharply west at Haidong, a quiet and prosperous village with lush farms behind it, continues a couple hundred meters and then turns north again.  On the knoll above this latter turn stands the Sky Mirror Pavilion.  Originally this was another Nanzhao Era viewing tower, destroyed, rebuilt in later centuries and augmened by a temple to Guan Yin, the Buddhist goddess of compassion, who is a Bai favorite. 
       The three-tiered tower stands up the slope past a row of small pavilions leading down to the fancy, multi-roofed entrance gate next to the road.  Occasionally boats from Dali take tourists here for the ride and the view back across the lake.  But the usual visitors are Haidong villagers, who come not for the view but to worship at the Guan Yin shrine.  Bai farmers here primarily grow rice, but families have their boats, too.  And while depleting fish stocks means less fishing nowadays, the boats are still useful for transportation and gathering up the algae and lake surface moss that can be turned into compost for the fields.
Sky Mirror Pavilion
        Continuing north of the Sky Mirror Pavilion, the next major village along the shore is Wase, a sprawling Bai village with, like Haidong, a picturesque islet just offshore a few km south.  Opposite the hamlet of Haiyin, much smaller than Jinsuodao, the islet is called Xiaoputuo and holds a single, beautiful, two-tiered temple beside a huge leafy tree nearly the same height.  Perched on a platform several meters above the water, its curved roofs with upturned corners contrast against the distant mountain slopes to the west.  The scene is prettiest in the early morning, when the first sunrays strike the island.
        Nearby Wase, is noted for its market days, held on calendar dates ending in 0 or 5.  With lots of available farmland beside and beyond Wase, especially to the east, villagers depend more on farming than fishing, especially in recent years.  Many small boats lie overturned along the shore north of the settled area and the bigger vessels with the tall masts rarely sail out onto the lake.  The boats docked in the harbor on market days are those carrying villagers from other lakeside settlements and tourists from Xiaguan or Dali.
        However, not everyone has abandoned fishing and people in tiny little makeshift boats, floating on blocks of Styrofoam or the inner tubes of truck tires lashed together, still paddle through the offshore waters, using small nets and traps to catch fish.  A few others use rods and cast their lines from the shore above Wase.
fishing near Wase
       Goods sold on market days are mainly farm products like rice, maize, vegetables and spices.  Farmers sell the spices mixed, with samples of the various mixtures put in little piles on a table in front of the packaged products.  Farm tools, baskets, trays, coils of rope, footwear, household pots, pans and utensils and snacks like deep-fried shrimp, sweets and cakes also go on sale.  Local vendors begin setting up in the market square near the pier from 7 a.m., though the scene is relatively quiet until nearly 9:00, when it starts getting crowded.  A stall selling Bai music videos starts playing them and this loud background music continues the rest of the day.
Wase village

       Around 11:00 the tour boat from Dali arrives, discharging a group of mainly backpackers, who dart around the market area looking for photo-ops, perhaps grab a bite to eat at one of the restaurants and have to return to the boat about 1:30.  The lake surface starts getting pretty choppy in mid-afternoon and since it’s a long journey back to Dali, the boat skipper insists, on the grounds of safety, on an early departure.  And by the time it gets close to the western shore white-tipped waves already dominate the lake surface.
market day in Wase
       Back in Wase, those who came by passenger boat also have to leave before the water gets too rough.  They don’t have as far to go, of course, so they can stay longer than the tourists.  By 3:00, though, activity in Wase starts to wind down.  Visiting villagers are departing and only local residents and those who live within walking distance still remain.  By 5:00 they are all gone, too, and the stalls in the market square have all been dismantled.  Without any bars or nightclubs, Wase now reverts to its post-market peace and quiet.
       Beyond Wase, the last northeastern sector of Erhai is part of Eryuan County, including Shuanglang, the next major stop up the eastern shore and arguably the prettiest Bai village in the entire area.  The residential area lies at the base of a small hill and spreads over a claw-shaped, flat peninsula that juts out from the middle of the village.  Farms lie around and behind the hill, but until recently Shuanglang was primarily a fishing village, especially active in late summer, when fleets of boats set out onto the lake.
the peninsular part of Shuanglang village
       Nowadays, it looks like tourism will soon become the biggest earner in the local economy.  Just south of Shuanglang lies a small offshore island.  On my first visit to the village twenty years ago the island was empty and boats only went there to cast nets and lay fish traps off the shore.  By the end of the decade, after a massive tourist company investment, the place became a theme park called Nanzhao Island.  It features a massive palace, central market square, exhibition hall and various sculptures, including a marble Avalokitesvar, supposedly copied from an ancient model.  But it stands 17.56 meters tall, the biggest marble statue in the world, and we can be pretty sure that’s several times the size of any original model.      
Nanzhao Island and lakeside restaurants
       Tour boats from Xiaguan bring dozens of Chinese tourists here every day.  Besides seeing the palace and statues, they can examine a traditional Bai house, buy deep-fried snacks in the square and watch the inevitable ethnic song and dance show.  For a genuine cultural experience they could skip the artificiality of the island and explore Shuanglang instead:  plenty of Bai houses here, as well as temples, markets, people in ethnic clothing, the same snacks and food and the same magnificent view across the lake.  They don’t, though, because organized tourism means organized presentations of whatever attractions are in the area.  Tour operators here believe they are supposed to be professional shepherds. 
       In recent years Yunnan’s railway network has extended from Xiaguan to Lijiang.  Shuanglang now has a station on this line and will surely draw more tourist attention.  Twenty years ago, pre-Nanzhao Island, only local Eryuan County buses went there and from Dali you had to get off a north-bound bus at Jiangwei and flag down one coming from Eryuan to get to Shuanglang.  It had a couple cheap guesthouses and maybe half a dozen restaurants or noodle shops. 
       Even before the train line opened Shuanglang was already much more accessible.  To visit Nanzhao Island one had to pass through or by Shuanglang and its natural attractions encouraged returns, this time for the village alone.  Now that it has been ‘discovered’ by both national and international tourism, the conditions that made Shuanglang such a genuine attraction may begin to erode.  New hotels have been erected, including a couple of high-end luxury hotels, restaurants line parts of the waterfront and Dali-style souvenir shops can’t be far behind.
Shuanglang market day
       You can hardly blame the local Bai for getting in on the tourist business.  Their big earner in the past—fishing—is no longer viable.  In fact, this year the government temporarily banned fishing in Erhai, due to depleted stocks and contamination.  The old fishing vessels that fascinated me in the past no longer line the docks of the peninsula.  Only small passenger boats ply the water these days.  Shuanglang’s farms are still productive, but of course, families are bigger now, everything is more expensive than before and some kind of income has to replace what they once earned from fishing.
       How much the coming transformations in Shuanglang, and later on in the rest of the eastern shore villages, will affect local people is up for speculation.  The Bai are a very conservative people.  They celebrate more festivals, follow more ancient customs and retain more of their traditional aesthetic and cultural views than most of the province’s minorities.  That’s held true in recent times even on the western shore of Erhai, the most heavily tourist-mobbed area in the prefecture.  So there’s a good chance Shuanglang’s new popularity will not entirely undermine local traditions.  And who knows?  Maybe the lake will revive and the people can renovate their boats and go fishing again.  Anyway, in the meantime, they still have their splendid location at the most scenic spot on Erhai Lake.
fishing boat in Shuanglang, 1994
                                                                          * * *


Friday, November 7, 2014

The Ethnic Mix of Little-Known Menglian County

                                                           by Jim Goodman

       The landscape and culture of southwestern Yunnan’s Menglian County very much resemble that of Xishuangbanna.  Hills rise around the alluvial plains, where the major towns lie along rivers.  The Dai minority nationality dominates the plains population, wet-rice cultivators who live in stilted houses and practice Theravada Buddhism.  Other ethnic minorities, from the Tibeto-Burman and Mon-Khmer linguistic groups, inhabit the hills, growing dry rice, sugar cane or tea.
Dai temple in Menglian old town
       Menglian (the Chinese word for the original Dai Muang Lem) was never administratively part of Xishuangbanna, though.  The southern part of Lancang County separates it from Banna and even today travelers from Banna have to go to Lancang City first, then go southwest to Menglian.  Until the late Qing Dynasty Menglian was an autonomous Dai state, first established in the 13th century.  The previous century a Dai chieftain in Xishuangbanna had already founded a kingdom, but relations between the two remained friendly.  The two shared a common religion and social order and their Dai dialects are close as well.
       The little Dai state of Menglian not only retained its autonomy over the centuries, it remained aloof from the internecine power struggles that plagued Xishuangbanna throughout the 19th century, when Jinghong was repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt in new locations.  As a result, today virtually nothing remains of old Jinghong palaces, walls, classic buildings, etc, while Menglian’s old Dai 
riverside chedi
quarter still exists, nestled on a gentle slope beside the west bank of the river, opposite the new city.  In the past, the ruling family, state officials and nobles lived in the upper part of the slope, while the commoners lived on the flat section at the base of the hill and in hamlets across the river.  Today this section has become part of Menglian’s commercial quarter, but the upper part of the old town is still in place.
       Most of the houses have in the past decade or so replaced their bricks and tiles with cement and corrugated iron.   They retain the Dai style, though, with angled roofs and sculpted peacocks below the roof apex.  And while a couple of new, large temple compounds have gone up in recent years at the base of the hill, the old quarter still retains two of its old temples, with wooden walls and tiled roofs, further up the slope. 
       The old quarter also retains the former ruling chao’s palace, now the city museum, just above the ceremonial center of the town, about midway on the slope.  Though it’s obviously the biggest residential compound around, as a palace it is relatively modest.  The chao and his wife slept on simple mattresses on the floor, rather like the commoners, and did not furnish the place with a lot of fancy furniture, even in the royal audience hall.  The kitchen is not particularly capacious, the buildings not embellished with ornate carvings and other decorations, the heirlooms on display not evidence of a rich royal family. 
the former ruling chao muang's compound
       So it was not a particularly wealthy state, but it didn’t really need to be.  It had no quarrels with its neighbors.  Its people carried on with their lives in pretty much the same manner in the past as they do today.  They raise their crops, perform their daily chores and attend the periodic markets.  They have electricity now, modern communications devices like cell phones and computers, vehicles like motorbikes and tractor-trailers, but their lives are still ruled by the seasons.
       Menglian today still has that relaxed, laid-back atmosphere that must have characterized the former chao muang’s realm.  The city is not very big. From the new bus station on the expanded eastern edge of the city it’s but twenty minutes walk to the river.  Traffic is not very heavy yet.  The main road crosses the river and continues to other points in the county all the way to
Dai grill stand in Menglian city
the Myanmar border.  But above this road, taking a walk up the slope through the old town to the former palace or the two old temple compounds is like strolling through a quiet rural village.  The old town is beyond the hearing range of city traffic sounds.
       The new city is never very noisy, anyway.  Buildings are rarely more than four stories high, maximum seven, and no towering skyscrapers dominant the skyline as in Jinghong.  On my first visit in September, 1998 a row of attractive buildings and a gilt chedi lined the river’s east bank just below the bridge to the old town.  
Menglian riverside, 1998
After the turn of the century I found the city demolished all but the chedi, replacing them with a football field.  But a couple years later the city established a new park further downriver from the chedi, that included bronze sculptures of ethnic minority activities, a performance park, temple and other chedis, carved pillars and a palm-lined walkway beside the river to the southern bridge.
       Menglian is officially a Dai, Lahu and Wa Autonomous County in Pu’er Prefecture.  The Aini, though, are also a numerically significant presence and so the park’s sculptures include them as subjects, too.  Depictions of ethnic life include an Aini woman carrying a pack basket that uses a shoulder board and head-strap, as well as Dai farmers in the rice field, a Wa woman making liquor, a Lahu woman weaving with a back-strap loom, Dai dancing girls, a Wa hunter and a Lahu fisherman.  The performance area is the venue for government holiday events, but also the programs, usually dances, associated with the Dai Water-Sprinkling Festival and the Wa New Rice Festival.  At those times villagers of all ethnic minorities are in the city to watch the show and their colorful presence enhances the events.
Lahu women in Menglian for market day
Dai thread merchants, Menglian market
       They will also come to Menglian, in only slightly greater numbers, for the market day the city hosts every five days.  Arriving in trucks, minibuses and tractor-trailers, Dai, Lahu, Wa and Aini villagers swarm into the city from early morning.  Most of then are women and dress in all or part of their traditional outfits.  Among the Dai, it’s generally just the older women in ethnic clothing, dominated by white, gray, blue and black, with white turbans.  The Lahu women dress in red and 
Wa cap and earplugs
black sarongs and jackets.  Wa women are distinctive both by the style of sarong, the cap laden with silver chains, perhaps with s smoking pipe tucked into the top, and the large silver ear plugs and disc pendants they favor for jewelry.  
       Aini women, though, are the real standouts.  From dark indigo cotton cloth they weave and dye themselves they make an outfit that consists of a plain short skirt, pleated in the back, a colored and beaded sash hanging in front, a heavily embroidered jacket with appliquéd stripes on the sleeves, leg-wrappers similarly appliquéd, embroidered shoulder bag and an elaborate headdress.
       Basically the headdress is a fitted skullcap with a plate rising behind it, straight at the bottom and rounded at the top.  Rows of silver studs and beads cover the surface of the cap, while a false hair part protrudes below the front rim.  The back plate is covered in black cloth and often decorated with strings of beads and rows of silver studs.  From the sides of the headdress they might drape loops of beads and to the cap attach flowers, tassels, pompoms or green beetle wings. 
Aini woman checks for messages
AIni woman, Menglian market
       Many of the Aini men also show up in traditional attire, though of course these are less spectacular than the women’s.  The outfit comprises plain trousers, moderately embroidered jacket and plain turban.  Lahu, Dai and Wa men dress in modern style for the most part.  But men are a minority anyway in the city on market day, for women both run the stalls and do the shopping.  The big, covered central market is the main venue.  But on the side streets beside it villagers set up rows of stalls.  Aini women selling mountain and forest products—wild vegetables, mushrooms, herbs, bamboo grubs and bee larvae—will occupy one lane.  On another lane Dai women sell medicinal herbs and plants, vegetables, rice, farm tools and wooden items like mortars, chopping blocks, bowls, etc.  On other streets, for market day is not confined to only one area, Wa and Lahu women set up stalls to hawk their particular products. 
the Menglian Lahu ethnic style            
       Besides Menglian city itself, each district in the county holds its own regular market day.  The composition of the crowd will change according to the location.  The Aini who are so prominent in the Menglian market are elsewhere only present for market day in the border town of Mengxin, directly south of Menglian.  To the north and northwest, in hilly Nanya, Fuyan and Gongxin districts, some Dai come up from the valleys, but those in the market are mainly Wa, from the higher villages, and Lahu from lower on the slopes. 
       Southwest of Menglian, on the main road to Myanmar, Dai and Lahu dominate the Mengma market.  In Menga, the border town, the venue is a pleasant shady grove at the edge of town.  Besides the Dai locals, those in attendance include Wa and Lahu from both China and Myanmar.  You can sort of tell them apart, even when they belong to the same sub-group.  The poorer they appear to be, the more they just look around at all the goods and the less they actually purchase, the more likely they are to be from Myanmar.
winnowing grain near Mengma
       Both Mengma and Menga are plains towns, so the area around them mostly consists of Dai villages, plus a handful of resettled Wa hamlets.  Lush rice fields flank both sides of the highway and occasionally bamboo bridges span the stream running alongside.  The best time to enjoy this scenery is early autumn, when the fields turn golden yellow and the people are out in big groups, harvesting the crop together.  After they have threshed the grain they next winnow it by standing on a stilt.  The grain thus has further to fall than if they were doing it standing on the ground and the wind has more time to blow away the chaff.  The method may be unique to Menglian, for I’ve not seen it elsewhere in the province.
       Farmers in the hills grow a different kind of rice, but nowadays far less than in the past.  Many villages now raise tea or sugarcane as a cash crop, since these do not take so much out of the soil as rice does, so they do not need to make new fields for rice cultivation every two years.  Tea factories have been set up in the hills and during the tea boom times in Xishuangbanna several years ago, Menglian County tea cultivators also got a windfall.  They didn’t spend it on building a “modern style” concrete house to replace their own, though, as so many newly rich Banna people did.  Traditional style still characterizes houses in the tea garden villages in the hills of Menglian County.      
Wa woman, Mengxin district
       Despite its obvious attractions, Menglian still draws few tourists.  Compared to Xishuangbanna, it is less congested, less “touristy” and money–oriented, more authentic, its historical relics more intact, its ethnic minorities more colorful and traditional, yet it gets only a tiny sliver of the crowd that visits Banna.  Menglian’s people don’t particularly resent that.  They know their county is rather remote and not as well connected as Banna.  The few foreigners who make it there find the people quite friendly and quick to smile.  Minority women in town for market day do not avoid the camera nor shy away from their rare sight of a foreigner.  In fact, they may become curious, especially the Wa, and approach the visitor, not to sell some trinket or other, but to engage in a short conversation, short because of their own limited knowledge of Chinese.
       This is also true in the villages far from the city.  In my own excursions in the hills there I found my unexpected presence taken not as an intrusion but as a welcome interruption.  I could not be there more than five minutes before someone rushed to invite me inside the house for tea and talk.  Learning that I lived in Thailand provoked questions about the differences between the life of the Wa, Lahu or Aini there and in Menglian; or even between Menglian and Xishuangbanna.
       The big difference is that Menglian doesn’t have a tourist industry.  Villagers might feel less welcoming if busloads of camera-toting strangers descended regularly on their settlements or surrounded them in the city on market day to get selfies with the lady in the exotic costume.  In the 14 years since my initial and my most recent visit to Menglian, the city has added new suburbs as well as parks, and the people are as friendly, approachable and hospitable as ever.  Tourists are still rare and maybe that’s why the place is so relaxed and genuine.  And because it’s so off the beaten track, maybe it will stay charming for a long time to come.
Aini woman, Menglian market

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       for more on the Lahu and Aini see my e-book Xishuangbanna: the Tropics of Yunnan