Leslie Chang writes in “Factory Girls” – a fascinating book about migrant workers pursuing the “Chinese dream” – of Chinese people’s tendency to gloss over history. As she interviewed subjects for her book she constantly came against a kind of national amnesia. People made light of their past suffering or resorted to, “I don’t remember much.”
Her sentiment resonated with me when I read the book, for how many times have I heard my elders retell the hardship of the 1950’s through a few small anecdotes that sweep over countless details?
“When there was no food grandma made pancakes out of rough grains, stuff that would’ve been animal feed in other times. She always made a cornmeal cake for your uncle because he had horrible stomachaches. The rest of us stared at that golden cake on the stove, imagining how it tasted.”
“With inflation, the sacks of bills that great-grandma’s family stashed away became worthless overnight. They started to wipe the kids’ bums with the useless notes.”
While traveling through Ningxia last fall, I also witnessed a kind of heartless forgetfulness. At the China West Film Studio, I walked through a period set – “Cultural Revolution Street” – where tourists cheered on a mock denunciation meeting. Children ran around wielding prop rifles. Some visitors even paid money to don era costumes and film their own antics.
My American friend quietly commented, “Imagine Germans staging a reenactment of the Holocaust.”
I was reminded of this forgetfulness (or is it a collective coping mechanism?) last week, when I went home to Harbin to celebrate Chinese new year with my family. My cousin was entertaining visitors from afar and invited me to dinner with them at “Xiang Cun Da Yuan” (Big Village Yard). The Yard is a sort of dinner plus show venue specializing in “er ren zhuan” (bawdy folk duets).
I had seen enough retro – some might even be called retro chic – restaurants to know that I should expect homespun kitsch at the Yard. Walls plastered with newspapers, flowery table cloths, and servers sporting pigtails and simple country garb – these are the essentials. But this particular “village yard” took the nostalgia to a whole new level.
I walked into the three-storey Village Yard and felt like I was in a replica of a China West Film Studio lot. Servers wearing khaki green uniforms with red epaulets, red star caps, and red arm bands bearing “Serve the people” slogans roamed the floors. I took in the bamboo tables and thatched roofs over every “yard” (private table), strings of peppers and corn hanging out to dry, and posters of Chairman Mao on the walls and realized that this wasn’t just a retro folk-themed restaurant. It was a 1960’s themed restaurant, heavily draped in the politics of the era.
The food was authentic hometown fare, but I was engrossed in the show. “Er ren zhuan” itself was but a tiny portion of the program. The majority of the evening centered on uniformed “guards” singing revolutionary songs and reliving the glory days when poor farmers lauded the arrival of communist liberation soldiers.
The theatrics were impressively detailed. The performers were fresh-faced and eager, their costumes varied and real. An older actor marched through the crowd a few times in different ensembles to evoke the actions of 60’s revolutionaries: armed with a bayonet for fighting, a sickle for farm work, and the full regalia of a Korean War combatant, complete with a heavy duty field radio.
The irony beneath this curious entertainment and the revival-like atmosphere it had created among the diners didn’t escape me. The entrepreneur behind the Yard employed every capitalist business tactic at his disposal to reap profits from selling communism. With more than a hundred people in captive (and inebriated) audience, the restaurant staff sold folk paintings in a live auction, took orders for personalized greetings, and solicited song requests. One enthusiast even paid to belt out his favorite tune on stage. Fortunately, the band terminated every song after just a few verses. All around the “yards”, costumed servers hawked baskets full of popcorn, candies, and other consumables table to table.
I was enthralled and snapped away with my camera. But I also felt guilty at partaking in such revelry. How could I wholeheartedly enjoy an evening that showcased only the good stuff of history and left out all the bad? What were my fellow diners thinking as they drunkenly swayed to the music?
Like Leslie Chang, I’ve often wondered if people here simply don’t remember the past, or if it’s just easier to cope with tragedies by focusing only on the good memories? Or could it be that life in our changing society is so complex now that people long for the simplicity of a time when they had a swelling of pure hope?
As I silently analyzed the evening’s proceedings, I also noticed that I was the only one who wasn’t fun. Red-faced diners, most of them tourists, ran around trying to get pictures taken with the performers. A group of rowdy men even jumped on stage to pick up props and pose for photos while the singers tried to carry on.
I was indeed alone in my worry and sadness, sadness for the bad things that came after the idealism of the early revolutionary days. I think this is the same loneliness that Leslie Chang felt when she travelled from north to south, researching the history of her family and the pursuit of the modern Chinese dream.