When you come across a dilapidated village clinging to the last vestige of its past, a wise person will choose to leave it alone. Few would choose to fix it as there would be a long string of hurdles to overcome, including finding the time and resources. CERS, unfortunately, is cursed with many such unwise individuals.
My team and I first set eyes on Hong Shui Village in March 2007. The village’s fate was almost sealed with the demolition of the entire village scheduled within two weeks. It was to be replaced by cement and brick houses which the government encouraged as substitutes for the traditional “makeshift” architecture. I could have lamented the demise of yet another icon of a unique ethnic group, written about it, and mourned its departure. I could have documented its passing with a few photographs and some video footage. That would have saved my colleagues and I heaps of trouble over the next few years, and most people would have chosen that route.
Instead, CERS sprang into action. Numerous calls were made to important government officials to stall the imminent bulldozing of the last intact traditional village of the indigenous Li people of Hainan. This minority has a population of 1.2 million people. Our appeal got a moratorium on the demolition from the government for a few weeks. By the end of March I returned with a proposal to preserve at least a dozen or so of these thatch-roofed houses. At the end, our appeal found the right ears and the government decided to preserve the entire village of over 70 houses. CERS would spearhead the preservation and restoration effort by developing alternative uses for up to 20 houses.
Fast-forward two years and many return trips. The first phase is finished with nine houses restored, including three done quite nicely, turning traditional sheds into resort-like villa models. A large team of student interns came during the summer and collected objects for our future museum exhibits, to be created as a second phase by modifying five to six thatch-roofed houses.
One of these houses would become a small theater showing documentary films which focus on a number of topics, from eclipsing culture and tradition to documenting the socio- economic changes’ impacts on the villagers. With me on this trip are 11 film students from Singapore and their professors. They are here for a second time to put together a number of short films for future use in the intended theater.
Just yesterday, the provincial government led by the tourism bureau brought a group of architects and designers from the US as well as potential investors to visit Hong Shui Village. They looked at our site in awe and showered us with flattering praise as our premises had become an oasis within a rather dilapidated village with bad sanitation and poor hygiene. My team must feel gratified that some of their hard work is being recognized.
We have also successfully attracted media attention from the US (Wall Street Journal), the UK (Royal Geographical Society Journal), Singapore (Straits Times), Hong Kong (TVB), Taiwan (Rhythms Magazine), and from within China (Hainan Daily). On this trip, a producer from Beijing CCTV is also here to discuss a future story.
But the real hard work is still ahead of us. Our third phase would be most challenging: how to maintain some select activities and keep some cultural aspects alive, and be at the same time economically sustainable. This calls for a well integrated approach including a management plan, as well as training locals to be custodians of their own cultural heritage. Ideally we would create a model that would meet the needs of the outside market, be it a select tourism market niche, or merchandising of arts and crafts, providing the village and the villagers with a new lease on life that has a linkage to their past.
As is often the case, a people’s aspiration to modernize, change and become homogenized with mainstream society is directly opposite to what tourists interested in indigenous culture and traditional lifestyles consider attractive. How to moderate with innovation and build upon both tradition and modernity is an issue CERS takes up as a challenge with the Hainan model.
It is easy to set our sight on an ideal situation, but realizing it requires commitment, dedication, perseverance, resources, expertise, and some luck. The outcome is what I call “equitable conservation”. In a few years, we may know whether we can reach that destiny. In the mean time, there is little time to dream about it as we work hard to more towards the next stage.
As I look at the highest peak across the river from Hong Shui Village, I can see a new tower being erected. Once activated, it will provide mobile telephone service for the village. For now, each day we must drive or hike to a high point where our phone or Blackberry can receive one or two bars of signal from some distant tower.
With finishing touches being put to a paved road, television antennas saturating each home, electricity and water being assured, Hong Shui is embarking on a milestone journey into the modern world. While villagers march into a promising future, perhaps in another generation or two, they will also come to appreciate the remnants of their past we are preserving.