Bloody marys and Andy Warhol pro­vide an ex­otic rus­tic mix

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - COVER STORY - By DENG ZHANGYU

As dusk falls on Bis­han vil­lage in An­hui prov­ince a bar is crammed with vil­lagers down­ing bloody marys and mar­gar­i­tas af­ter a hard day’s toil on the farm. The bar’s name, Dog’s Bistro, and the in­te­rior dec­o­rat­ing are straight out of Eng­land, yet of the many lo­cals en­joy­ing the evening here, some have never crossed the bor­ders of An­hui prov­ince.

Out­side the bar, the rest of the vil­lage, made up of sev­eral hun­dred white houses with black-tiled up­turned eaves, Hui-style ar­chi­tec­ture com­mon in the area, falls into slum­ber.

Li Guoyu, owner of the bistro, says the cock­tails rit­ual is the way vil­lagers in­dulge their fan­tasies about liv­ing like city slick­ers, and one of the kicks this gives them is know­ing that no other vil­lages in these parts can claim to have a bar.

Yet at one stage it seemed that the days of Bis­han vil­lage, like many similar vil­lages in China, were num­bered, many of their in­hab­i­tants mov­ing away into cities and leav­ing an in­creas­ingly el­derly pop­u­la­tion to tend to tra­di­tional houses, many of them hun­dreds of years old that had fallen into dis­re­pair.

Mi­gra­tory flow

Then, about 10 years ago, the na­ture of that mi­gra­tory flow, un­til then a one-way tor­rent, be­gan to change as ur­ban dwellers, not quite happy with their lot in the ur­ban jun­gle, be­gan to see the beauty and at­trac­tions of the likes of Bis­han vil­lage.

Thus peo­ple like Li be­gan to move to the vil­lage, at the foothill of Bis­han Moun­tain, and their de­sire to be closer to na­ture turned into some­thing else: a mis­sion to re­vive the vil­lage.

Li came from Shang­hai in 2007 and ren­o­vated a house about 400 years old, trans­form­ing it into a fam­ily ho­tel, and it even­tu­ally at­tracted trav­el­ers from home and abroad.

In that re­gard she was a pi­o­neer, and three years ago she and her hus­band bought a run-down oil fac­tory and trans­formed it into an­other ho­tel fur­nished with lo­cal­style items, and it is now rated a must-see spot in the travel guide Lonely Planet.

Later, Ou Ling, an artist, moved to the vil­lage as a mem­ber of the Bis­han Project, a plan to re­vive the tra­di­tions and ar­ti­san­ship of Bis­han. A book­shop spe­cial­iz­ing in arts opened at an an­ces­tral hall in the vil­lage cen­ter and an ex­hi­bi­tion cen­ter was set up in a barn.

Bam­boo prod­ucts

A show dis­play­ing prod­ucts made by de­sign­ers and ar­ti­sans in Bis­han opened in the ex­hi­bi­tion cen­ter early this year and at­tracted hun­dreds of cu­ri­ous lo­cals. Yao Ji­aju, a crafts­man who makes ar­ti­cles us­ing bam­boo strips, has his prod­ucts on dis­play in the ex­hi­bi­tion.

“I never re­al­ized prod­ucts made of bam­boo strips could re­ally be treated as works of art,” Yao, 65, says. Like the vil­lage as a whole, he had to adapt over the years as the ur­ban ex­o­dus took hold. He lost the three ap­pren­tices he used to em­ploy, and he was forced to do some­thing else to make a liv­ing.

“With bam­boo it was next to im­pos­si­ble to sup­port my fam­ily,” he says.

How­ever, a year ago sev­eral de­sign­ers sug­gested he could work with them in pro­duc­ing goods made of bam­boo. Years ago many in the vil­lage made their liv­ing that way thanks to the abun­dance of bam­boo in the area, but Yao was con­vinced that any po­ten­tial buy­ers of such goods in cities had writ­ten off the craft as not worth the can­dle.

Now Yao’s prod­ucts in­clude a Chi­nese chess­board, cov­ers and caps for cups and bot­tles, all made with bam­boo strips.

“They’re dif­fer­ent to what I used to do. These de­signs are more del­i­cate and re­fined.”

If these items sell well his chil­dren who live in a town may even be able to re­turn to the vil­lage and learn the craft from him, he says.

Zhou Yi, who stayed at Bis­han for sev­eral months and helped or­ga­nize the ex­hi­bi­tion, says most vil­lagers seemed a lit­tle dubious when they were told items made by iron­smiths, car­pen­ters and lac­quer work­ers in their vil­lage would be on dis­played in the show.

In fact, at first lo­cals re­garded the show in the ex­hi­bi­tion cen­ter as alien as a bar that sells mar­gar­i­tas and a book­shop in the vil­lage whose wares in­clude a bi­og­ra­phy of the Amer­i­can pop art ex­po­nent Andy Warhol.

Ex­plain­ing the rai­son d’etre for the ex­hi­bi­tion, Zhou says: “Trav­el­ers are intrigued by the lo­cal cul­ture and land­scape. At the same time, vil­lagers can make a liv­ing out of crafts and tourist-re­lated busi­ness.”

It is also a pub­lic space for lo­cals to read books, lis­ten to lec­tures and visit shows, she says.

With a plethora of cul­tural ac­tiv­i­ties, Bis­han has at­tracted at­ten­tion from me­dia and tourists from around the world to visit the vil­lage.

In­dus­try awards

Many lo­cals have got into the hos­pi­tal­ity in­dus­try, and for many of them Li’s ho­tels and how they are dec­o­rated and run serve as a ref­er­ence point. How­ever, in many cases those look­ing for clues to how they can suc­ceed do not get Li’s drift.

“They come and look at the way the ho­tels have been done up, and they don’t like it,” he says. “They think they are ugly and they don’t un­der­stand why trav­el­ers would like them.”

Thank­fully for Li, that skep­ti­cism is not univer­sal, and her ho­tels, dec­o­rated old fur­ni­ture bought lo­cally and made to give a tra­di­tional Huistyle feel, have won a bun­dle of in­dus­try awards.

“Vil­lagers think streets in big cities like Bei­jing are beau­ti­ful, and that houses with big rooms and fancy fur­ni­ture have got a lot of charm,” she says.

Li, who has lived in Bis­han for 12 years now, has seen the vil­lage change over the years as more peo­ple have moved in, and she seems to be skep­ti­cal about whether that has been to the vil­lage’s ben­e­fit, although for the mo­ment she is with­hold­ing a de­fin­i­tive ver­dict.

Ear­lier this year, Ou Ning, an artist who started the ru­ral de­vel­op­ment project in Bis­han, sold his house and moved out.

Vil­lagers in Bis­han visit a show dis­play­ing prod­ucts made by lo­cal ar­ti­sans and de­sign­ers at an ex­hi­bi­tion cen­ter that used to be a barn; Dog’s Bistro; bam­boo chess made by Yao Ji­aju and de­sign­ers.

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