Category Archives for "Book Reviews"

Mar 13

An interview with travel writer Alec Le Sueur, marketing manager of the first international hotel in Tibet

By Mitchell Blatt | Book Reviews , China , Culture , Travel

Alec Le Sueur spent five years as the marketing and sales manager of the Holiday Inn Lhasa, the first international hotel to be opened in Tibet after China reformed and opened to the world.

Barkhor Street in 1993, by John Hill. Wikimedia, CC.

Barkhor Street in 1993, by John Hill. Wikimedia, CC.

The Holiday Inn was known as “the hardest hardship post.” Nicholas Kristof once wrote an article about it titled “A Tibetan Horror Story.” It was two flights away from Hong Kong on the chaotic state-run Civil Aviation Administration of China Airlines, and for long periods of the year, the only meal to be had was spam. But the sights on mountains, Buddhist temples, traditional markets, and streets with yaks wandering freely were another thing.

Le Sueur chronicled the beauty of Tibet and the absurdities of running a hotel, where management duties were duplicated between a Chinese party and a foreign party that rarely saw eye-to-eye, where staff didn’t know how to use the new, technologically-advanced washing machines, where teaspoons went missing and a guard was hired to protect the toilet paper, in his book The Hotel on the Roof of the World.

Boeing 707 with Civil Aviation Administration of China Airlines, from Wikimedia. CAAC Airlines was not separated into private airline operators until 1988.

Boeing 707 with Civil Aviation Administration of China Airlines, from Wikimedia. CAAC Airlines was not separated into private airline operators until 1988.

Le Sueur’s witty and conversational style brings the place to life. Some of the scenes will look familiar to people who have spent time in China recently (Chengdu taxi drivers racing to the airport, rice wine banquets), but much else is lost into the past. Tibet has changed much. China’s airports are still chaotic masses of people, but they have changed, for the better, with modern airplanes and functioning logistical processes. The Holiday Inn has been taken over by the Chinese government’s managers, and new international hotels have opened up in Lhasa.

Le Sueur was also in Tibet at a time when pro-autonomy protests and riots broke out between 1987-89, and Tibet was under martial law for about a year, with no tourism. He mentions the political situation in so much as it impacted daily life and hotel operations, but he did not dwell on politics as a main subject.

Nicholas Kristof's 1990 column on the hotel and photo by Kristof.

Nicholas Kristof’s 1990 column on the hotel and photo by Kristof.

After five years, he left Tibet with his wife, whom he met while both worked at the hotel, and went with her to Belgium, which was the subject of his next book, Bottoms Up in Belgium: Seeking the High Points of the Low Land. He also left the hotel business and got an MBA in law firm management. He continues to contribute to travel magazines, including Food & Wine.

Following is my interview with the author:Continue reading

May 11

The end of the last matriarchal tribe?

By Mitchell Blatt | Book Reviews , China , Culture , Literature

Singaporean debut author chronicles the Mosuo of Lugu Lake as they face modernity–and possible extinction

The Kingdom of Women by Choo Waihong, I.B. Tauris

Throughout western China, minority ethnic groups are throwing off their traditional clothing, trading horses for automobiles, and choosing to sing Mandopop songs in karaoke rooms instead of traditional ethnic songs. When economic modernization demands different skill sets from the people and commercialization breeds different desires, traditional culture goes by the wayside.

I saw that first hand in the Bai Autonomous Prefecture of Dali (Yunnan), the Shui Autonomous County of Sandu (Guizhou), and the Qiandongnan area of Southeastern Guizhou. These villagers have access to new and beneficial luxuries. They can find higher paying jobs at home, in neighboring cities, or in factories in Guangzhou. Still, they try to hang onto traditional culture for tourism as well as cultural reasons.

Choo Waihong saw this situation playing out among the Mosuo people in the Lugu Lake area. Choo lived there for six years, adopted Mosuo culture, and became a figure in the Mosuo community. She wrote about it in her book The Kingdom of Women, published this year by IB Tauris.

The book begins with scenes of breathtaking vistas along mountain roads until Choo arrives in the land of the Mosuo and looks upon the Gemu Mountain Goddess, a female mountain deity who is worshipped by locals. The next day after she arrives is Zhuanshanjie (转山节), or Gemu Mountain Goddess Festival. Choo describes a splendid, large scale event with locals dressed to the hilt in colorful, elaborately embroidered, traditional ethnic dress; dancing, eating, prayer with incense, flute music, and Tibetan llamas all situated around a tent village. It was this passionate atmosphere in this beautiful environment that enticed Choo and convinced her to have a home built there.

Once there, she felt at ease amongst a society where women’s status was respected—even venerated. The Mosuo people are a matrilineal society—sometimes referred to as matriarchal, although whether they really are is contested. The Mosuo people are often said to practice “walking marriages,” where a man can walk up to a woman’s room and be invited in and kicked out at her pleasure. I heard that phrase a lot when I lived and traveled in Yunnan, particularly in relation to tourism promotion there.

But in fact, as Choo explains, the practice isn’t really a marriage at all. Women choose axias, long-term relationship partners, who come over at night but live at their mother’s house most of the day. They have a limited, but not nonexistent, relationship with any children they father. A couple may stay together for a long time, maybe even a lifetime, but in most cases they eventually move on and the woman takes another axia, often giving birth to children from multiple axias. Children are raised mostly by the mother, grandmother, and others in the family. The men of the family do the manual labor and the killing of animals for their family (that of their mother and sisters and their sisters’ children), and the grandmother of the household is the ultimate arbiter of major decisions.

Choo says this system results in women having a higher status, more autonomy, and freedom from some of the patriarchal strictures that are particularly evident in rural China. Women are free from social stigma attached to sexuality. Every woman is essentially a single mother (with a family to help raise and provide for their children). Women are not reliant on men for room or resources. Also, Choo says, women’s voices and opinions are respected amongst the Mosuo in a way they weren’t at the high-power corporate law firm where she used to work.

There is no Western concept, no traditional Chinese concept, no English word for the relationships in Mosuo society. “Walking marriage” is adopted partially to describe to an uninitiated audience, but also for tourism purposes. Ethnic tourism has been a growing industry in western China, particularly as train lines get extended and dirt roads turn into two-lane highways. Locals open restaurants and inns. The residents, who otherwise have started to leave their traditional attire in the closet, take it out and wear it to dance in front of tourists. Boys drop out of high school in order to pursue a career as a waiter.

Over the years she lived there, Choo says, she saw the scope and enthusiasm participants brought to the Gemu Mountain Goddess Festival wane. She became so disappointed that one year she decided to fund it herself. With her 5,000 RMB (US$725) donation and the help of a hardworking Mosuo man, they put on a great festival. But how long can it last?

“In the blink of an eye, in the six years I have lived among this community, I have borne witness at first hand to how quickly they have moved from their subsistence-farming way of life to plug right into the new world as cogs in the burgeoning tourism industry of China,” Choo writes.

See also: Ethnic Culture Struggles to Survive in Guangxi, China

In the end she says many locals are forgetting their traditional culture and adopting perspectives of the nationally dominant Han culture. One of her goddaughters married a Han man and started a nuclear family. Some of the young, would-be liberated women now want to protect their “purity” for a marriage.

Economic growth has brought indoor-plumbing, hot showers, and washing machines to homes, but it has also caused status-seeking. Besides food, drink, and smokes, some young men have began indulging in hard drugs like opium and heroin, Choo writes in the final chapter.

I know well how entrancing the scenery of Yunnan can be and the culture of the local ethnic groups. While I spent a much shorter time—just three months—living and working in Dali, I often return in my mind to those stone streets and the special festivals I witnessed. The white-walled homes painted with black ink (a Bai style) are beautiful, but not the fact that students have to come from over 100 kilometers away to attend a decent school. Ultimately a life of backbreaking farm labor is not desirable. It’s not the romantic image portrayed in cultural shows and tourism brochures. But economic growth coming from outside too quickly can have destabilizing effects.

See also: Dali vs. Lijiang: The Paradox of Successful Ethnic Tourism Marketing

Choo ends on an optimistic note. Some traditions may break down, “But I do take comfort from the reflection that the last thing that will survive will be their core belief in the matrilineal principle,” she writes. How the Mosuo cope with modernity is a question that will play out, and similar questions will play out in ethnic enclaves and villages throughout China.

The Kingdom of Women is an entertaining contribution to literature on the topic, a look at far-flung culture and a beautiful land. It can be purchased in hardcover at Amazon for $16.51, as of this writing.