Commemorative spoon theater!
It was the middle of the night on I-80 going through Nebraska that I first saw them. I had to be in San Jose, California in three days. A 24-hour truck stop promised a bathroom and coffee you could chew. It was going to be a long trip, and truck stops always have the best gadgets for those living on the road, so I browsed.
Nestled between trucker caps and beer cozies were a set of tiny spoons, no bigger than one you’d feed a baby with. The end of each spoon was imprinted with the state flag of Nebraska. These were “Collectable”. You made it to the middle of Nebraska, why not buy a spoon? I could imagine some old lady with an empty spot in her heart and her wall over South Dakota because “I just couldn’t make it up to Pierre when I visited my sister.”
This was the same initial feeling I got when I visited Ciqikou’s “old town”. Old Town is a neighborhood made to look like it did hundreds of years ago. The streets are only wide enough for people, the shops are made to look like they did in Imperial China. The streets are lined with many local trades, still practiced to this day. Hot pot spices, Dried meat, and soap making are all common shops. Street food, a tad more modern, is available as well. Candied fruit is a common snack. Not to mention the actual hot pot restaurants and noodle shops that line the streets.
Local professions unknown in the west are still practiced here. Chinese Palmistry, Guan Yin Oracles, Massage, acupuncture, and traditional Chongqing ear cleaning (A service I have not tried)
Lots of places have employees dressed in ancient garb standing out front trying to gather attention. Many of the shops have animatronic actors plying the trade as it was in the old times; grinding spices with a hand wheel, or pounding the meat with a huge mallet. Other shops dispense with the robots and just do it in front of you. Do not try to practice your Chinese on the robots.
The upper level, not quite a story up, is almost always a coffee shop/bar. In desperate competition with the others, live music is always a draw. My friend and I stopped at one for a quick game of “the mind”. We had a Cocktail called “the lady killer”. After both declaring it tasty, we carefully asked what the ingredients were. The waiter nodded obsequiously, and scurried off to the bar. Ten minutes later, he returned with his phone, open to his translation program. The answer: “Alcohol”. We didn’t press.
There is another denizen of Old town, These folks have left the old world charm for the new world commercialism. They almost always carry neon plastic “clappy-hands” which they swing in a hope of gaining the tourist’s attention. It’s almost always for a gift shop with exceedingly modern gifts. I’m no historian, but I don’t think the good people of the Tang dynasty were playing “Angry Birds”
That’s what struck me. It’s not like western cultural sites don’t have gift shops with questionably connected products. Most places have an “exit through the gift shop” policy. What struck me was how much of it there was. For every dose of real culture, there was at least two doses of tourism. This is not unique to Ciqikou, this is every Chinese cultural site I’ve visited. I say at least two because, being a foreigner, it's difficult to tell them apart sometimes. Are the Cat Cafes on the lower lever of Ciqikou culture, or kitsch? If you liked it, does it matter?
The thing is, I like touristy places. Tourist culture isn’t high culture, but it’s culture. I’m a teacher, and I’m interested in what toys turn the eyes of a child enough to listen to Grandpa’s lecture on old china. I know a lot of places are a little overpriced. I don’t mind being taken for a little bit of a ride, just so long as it’s not a lot of a ride.
That’s exactly what some sales person tried to do when she saw me buying a bracelet made of poor jade. She hustled me over to the jewelry counter and gave me a handful of scratcher tickets. I couldn’t read everything, but I knew “Mei you...” meant a loser. She kept giving me these until I won something: a discount for premium jewelry. She kept repeating “For your wife, she like very much.” She was showing me what looked like a small silver pendant in the shape of a bird priced in what was rent territory. I honestly couldn’t remember how to say that I wasn’t married, so I just told her I wasn’t interested and I left.
The real gem of Old town is the Bao Lun temple. Its quiet but large gate frames the three stories of stone steps you need to climb to get to the first altar. Inside there are at least a dozen altars with Buddhas, bodhisattvas, and various Buddhist statues. Pictures are not allowed at the altars, partly for respect (It’s rude to photo the Buddha) and partly to preserve statues that have been there since the 600’s. A few more stories up, and you reach the holy of holies, a golden Buddha that faces a Golden Bodhisattva across the courtyard. In the courtyard, Joss sticks the size of arms smolder in fire pits.
Worshipers are prostrating themselves on cushions they lay out in rows. I ask a passing monk for more information about the temple, he directs me to a lady minding the golden Buddha. She asks for a donation, but says she doesn’t have any literature. I guess the monks won’t sell dippin’ dots.
I wind up putting a few yuan in the donation plate, buying a kilo of really good jerky, and a few tchotchkes for the folks back home. There was no gift shop to exit out of, the whole place was the gift shop. I did get some legitimate culture though, and that’s what I came for.