Consumer market for ethnic minority performing arts
It’s the fifth week already. This week our class “Visual Anthropology of Contemporary China” had an on-site session at Makye Ame, a Tibetan restaurant with performance of Tibetan artists. The theme of the class continues to focus on the public performance of multiculturalism in China. For previous sessions we mostly focused on the Chinese state’s alteration and modernization of ethnic minority art forms for the purpose of propagating China’s socialist nationalism. This week we are shifting our attention to how market economy in China has cultivated a consumption pattern fixated upon ethnic art forms. Beijing is concentrated with a variety of ethnic-theme oriented entertainment sites and restaurant. We picked Makye Ame. This is now a restaurant chain. It started out in Lhasa. The owner is a Han Chinese woman who was fascinated by Tibetan cultural forms and was also observant enough to recognize the cultural patterns and tastes of tourists and backpackers from North America and Europe. She started her first Makye Ame in Lhasa. It was an instant success. Later she married her Tibetan husband. They then opened two Makye Ames in Beijing.
Konchok, our program assistant, did much preparatory work. She borrowed Tibetan dresses from her former classmates and professors at MUC.
As the instructor of the class, my intent for our American students’ wearing Tibetan dresses is to give everyone an opportunity to experience “being ethnic” in Beijing. In one sense, “being ethnic” at restaurant gives us an opportunity to assess what kinds of reactions we would receive from other restaurant customers. In the meantime, “being ethnic” is also meant to show our appreciation of Tibetan people and culture in Beijing.
Now I am grading our students’ writings about this event. I am truly enjoying reading the narratives of everyone’s experience. Here are some of the passages:
“Tibetan culture is displayed at restaurants like Makye Ame for the benefit of those who patron the
restaurant. In this sense I believe that it isn’t “true” Tibetan culture. I’m sure that many of the dances and songs we heard have some greater cultural meaning to those who sing and dance them than I understand and can derive from them. It is in this sense that I believe it is hard to enter and fully understand another culture without the cultural teachings taught to those of the culture from the time they are young…Our
experience at Makye Ame can be easily connected to Anna Morcom’s article Modernity, Power, and the Reconstruction of Dance in Post-1950s Tibet
. According to Morcom, “Chairman Mao was well aware of music and other arts as an active force in the creation of identity and culture [so] the traditions of music and dance of all nationalities of China, including the Tibetans, were uniformly reformed and ‘developed’ through a centralized network of Han Chinese training institutions. …[This was part of the] drive to reinvent itself as a modern nation in reaction to humiliation by foreign powers” (page 5). The state reformation of traditional ethnic arts resulted in a number of changes to the style of the dances and vocal performances as well as the costume of the minority groups.”
“…throughout the interview, Laura, Rachael, and Katie stressed how they felt that the show was very inauthentic and constructed to make it appealing to a specific consumer. Since I had not finished Morcom’s piece before going and perhaps they had, they were more on the alert for the things mentioned in it and had a more critical view toward the whole performance. This point of view, though not as blatantly noticeable to me at that time, was easier to accept. In fact, once they said it, I recounted how there had been some parts where I was very much aware of the more modern pulsing rhythms and dance beats in some of the songs, as well as how the turning on and off of the lights helped produced a stage show effect. At those points, I could fully agree with what the girls were saying…”
“During the first hour or so at Makye Ame, I really struggled with the question of economic intent versus authentic cultural experience. I felt that the difference between this manner of experiencing a culture as opposed to being invited to some cultural ceremony or ritual was too great to consider the former as a legitimate cultural experience. I also wondered if for the performers and the Tibetan staff members consider this style of cultural entertainment an acceptable and accurate way to portray their culture to others. However, after staying at Makye Ame, for a few more hours, the atmosphere and feeling behind the performances changed greatly. After many customers left the restaurant, and more friends and familiars arrived, the atmosphere became much more informal, and the performers seemed to be performing for themselves and other friends, instead of for customers. I started to feel like these performers did indeed accept this as an adequate way to participate in and express their culture to others. Later, reading Zhang
Yinjin’s article “From ‘Minority Film’ to ‘Minority Discourse’” further confirmed this feeling.”
Toward the end of our stay at Makye Ame, things became a lot more interactive. Tibetan artists were actually attracted to our students in Tibetan attire. Everyone went on the stage dancing together. Our students made friends with them…