Old Towns in Yunnan

Let’s talk a bit more about this authenticity thing. This is something I touched on in my last blog post, but the questions authenticity creates have surrounded me daily while studying abroad in China. Take, for example, my most recent trip to Yunnan province. It’s pretty far from Shanghai, bordering a number of Southeast Asian countries and home to a number of minority ethnic groups. Yunnan is a space that profits a lot off of its culture and history. The natural beauty alone makes it clear why tourism would thrive here. Add the ancient cities and monuments into the mix, and it’s nearly perfect.

Lijiang Town in Yunnan Province, China

Then there’s the question…how ancient is ancient? While traveling through the old town of Lijiang, ancient was eight-hundred years. That’s what the tour guide repeated to us as we walked the cobblestone streets and bought little souvenirs. The old town of Lijiang had been here for eight centuries and it was still going strong. The places we frequent in Shanghai are relatively young in comparison. This old town’s buildings were older than whole cities in the States. But it was a bit more complicated than that.

In the center of the old town is a palace. At first it has the same feeling of permanence and history that many ancient structures in China hold. Then you start looking closer at the outer walls. How the stone blocks are illusions, just black lines painted on flat concrete. How the wood and pillars were built with pretty modern sensibilities in mind. As the tour guide told us about the history of this palace, she only addressed these points at the very end of her speech.

“This isn’t the original palace,” she said. “It has been rebuilt.”

Yet it was still ancient. It still served the purpose of being a historical landmark, even if none of the materials were actually from the time period it represented. And for us, there wasn’t much of a difference anyway. It didn’t matter that the old town as a whole wasn’t really much of a town anymore. The purpose for this space has changed over the past eight-hundred years, going from a place for people to live to being a representation of the place it used to be. Is it still a “real” town? If we interpret that question to be asking whether it has the same function as some of the residential districts in Shanghai for example, then maybe not. But that’s not really a useful interpretation since it’s not taking context into account.

The old town doesn’t fulfill the same role that it historically used to, but it fulfills its new role as a representation of the past. It is simultaneously authentic and inauthentic, and it all depends on how you interpret its purpose. This is all terribly subjective, huh? That’s the problem with searching for a rigidly defined historical authenticity in spaces like these. Their goal isn’t necessarily to be the past, just to be something that resembles that past.

How about cases when even the space’s purpose isn’t clear cut? The town of Dali has its own historical district, which I also visited. It was just as breathtaking as the rest of the province. Narrow streets packed with tourists and shops, all framed against a massive mountain range that was ringed with clouds.

I was hungry.

This problem was easy to fix. Like I said, Dalis old town was packed with all sorts of restaurants, stores, and food stands. There was one that caught my eye, a little restaurant whose name (if I’m remembering right) roughly translates to Super Fry. I believe it’s a franchise but I hadn’t expected to see one in this area, and I still hadn’t tried the place yet, so I thought…why not? I was expecting french fries with some sort of twist. And I definitely got my twist.

I walked up to the counter and gave them my order of the “Fries with Cheese”. Music blasted from a portable speaker, some sort of English language rave track that kept repeating profanity on a loop. Which was kinda strange since this seemed like a family-friendly place. Anyway, I got the fries and they were longer than any I’ve ever seen before. Just look at this:

Extremely long, skinny French fries covered in mayonnaise

The cheese turned out to be mayonnaise which is my least favorite condiment in existence. The fries were awesome but I could only get through half of them because of the mayo all over them. I left the place a little more confused than when I’d entered. The confusion is mostly on me, though. I’d been expecting a certain kind of product because of the allusions to Western culture. The English music, the french fries, the smattering of English words on the menu — it echoed the same sort of vague similarity that I talked about in my last post in regards to McDonald’s. If anything, I was assuming that the restaurant was trying to appeal to Western food trends and even some cultural ones. After trying out the super-long mayo fries, maybe not. (Or they’re just like the French and love mayonnaise for some reason.)

It’s extremely difficult to qualify this restaurant as authentic or inauthentic because it’s not clear what it is attempting to achieve in the first place. The assumption that I made about its proximity to Western food is probably incorrect. It isn’t like the old towns, that are attempting to represent a historical time period. It’s not trying to represent a foreign food. If anything, it is one of many, many remixes that exist in China. A fusion and reinterpretation of many cultures, fused into one space, one dish. I’ll try a different topping next time. Who cares about something as wishy-washy as authenticity? All I know is no more “cheese” for me.

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