Back to the lap of luxury

Two full days of translation with Yang and it was done at midnight Wednesday, just in time for my bus to leave at noon on Thursday. I felt extremely lucky it was done though not without ample anxiety. Guessing people’s intention is the hardest thing, even though I finally believe he truly wanted to help, in a world where money paves the road for anything, it’s really difficult not to feel that when he slowed down on our progress, it was a sign of some needs.

On the morning of my last full day in Fugong, I was walking down the road to find some big bamboos to shoot and Ah-Yoo picked me up in his motor-taxi. He is one of the few I don’t have to second guess his niceness, and he has the wisdom to see the importance of keeping what’s unique about themselves. That budding desire to learn will keep me motivated to make that DVD I’ve promised to send him.

A sunny Thursday for my departure. It has been a full month. My overloaded backpacks weigh up to probably 70lbs, plus the Qiben I bought from Ah-Che wrapped in a one yuan nylon bag, plus a few bags of tea and herbs Kang sent through his friend.

Without much fanfare, I left feeling accomplished.

A few hours by the river and the bus stopped by border check point, one last thing to concern about because of my passport, but for whatever reasons, when everybody got off the bus, I seemed invisible to the three guards checking IDs among passengers. They simply missed me.

Full moon on the mountain as the bumpy ride crossed over to the watershed of the second of the Three Parallel Rivers, Lancang, the up stream of the Mekong. The unique position of these three rivers, Nu/Salween, Lancang/Mekong, and the Yangtze can only been seen on maps, but the whole region is so full of varieties in nature and in human culture there is really nothing parallel like it in the world.

Full moon and mountain hold too much emotion in me. Constant landscape contrasts the moving bus, the ever changing thoughts. In such background, the feeling of smallness and how temporary our existence is are so overwhelming one has to take comfort in every single breath. The space between thoughts, perhaps it is how.

By midnight, the bus already reached the highway to Kunming and by dawn, it arrived at the station in the city, a short taxi ride away from the Art Institute where I would meet Prof. Zhang, a professor in ethnomusicology.

I waited until after 8 before calling him and he soon came out to take me to his apartment by the college campus. Even in his late sixties, Prof. Zhang still looks very active and walks like someone half his age. We had a nice chat and I showed him a little bit of my recording. We both agreed that Ah-Che’s playing was good but not the best, but the daily lives of his family, the fact that he actively practice all three traditions important to their culture is well worth recording. I take comfort in knowing that. He insisted on having lunch with me at their faculty cafeteria before sending me to the airport.

After an hour of delay, I flew home in one piece and happy to Beijing on Friday, the 10th of April.

There is no place better than home with parents who have been worrying so much about me but always supported me unconditionally to do such crazy things. I’m the luckiest child in the world.

And that concludes this section of my making-of.

Pushing toward the finish line

Saturday night, Kang introduced his friend, Yang to be my translator. What a savior! That’s one thing I worry the most about. I can’t go home without having all 30 hours of footage translated.

Sunday morning’s planned trip to Ah-Che’s sister’s home didn’t yield anything. The son wasn’t home and I had to come back in the rain. Worked with Yang in the afternoon and made fine progress. He is a bit slower than the son but he is always around and also has good patience. Kang took off at night for the provincial capital to bring his sick brother-in-law back home. He’s been a great help, despite the little free time he can manage.

Monday was my last day of filming. Only a few things to do. The kids were happy because I brought “baba”, some fried bread stick this time to them and Ah-Che’s wife was happy to see pictures of the birthday gathering.

As usual, they waited for me for their morning meal. I made Ah-Che said a few sentences to introduce the rest of the music he played before. At the workshop, I tried to make him listen to part of Symphony No.9, though the reaction wasn’t that great, I should’ve waited until this time instead of letting him do it with A-Ci the other day. Oh well, a lesson learned, you can’t expect the same reaction from your subject if you show them something twice.

While the wife took the kids out for laundry, Ah-Che did some more Qibon polishing, and we went up the hill behind their house for a little bit of short flute and “kou xuan”, an instrument made out of thin bamboo, you blow and use fingers to cause the bamboo to vibrate, hence tunes. He’s only okay at it, though I like the sound playing to a forest background.

Not so much to do after that, I did some shots of the interior. The son came home with some meat and we had an early dinner at 5ish before I said good-bye (hwa hwa) to them. Really glad they opened their door and life for me to be anywhere I need. The process, with low points and high points all together is just amazing. I learnt so much from them and about myself. I even enjoyed the moments of self-doubt and loneliness – once you grasp your feeling and recognize its presence, it’s just a matter of time before it no longer holds power over you.

Before going down the mountain, I stopped by Ah-Yoo’s home and he took me to find another musician, or better put, a used-to-be musician’s home. He used to play much better than Ah-Che because he is older, but once Christianty came back to these villagers’ life, they burnt their Qiben and stopped playing and singing these old songs all together. “I haven’t played for thirty years”, he told me. Another older player he brough in didn’t fare much better, he tried endlessly tuning but couldn’t really get one tune out. If we’ve come to the realization of protecting native species from invasives in the natural world, how about our own world? Can removing drinking habit and all the trouble it causes justify the removing of a native culture?

Ah-Yoo insisted on bringing me down the mountain with his motor-taxi. In his good-heartedness, I still see hopes for their own tradition to continue, but they defintely need some outside stimulus, something to make them realize the importance of what they have.

Worked the rest of the the night with Yang on translation. Much better feeling now seeing I can actually get everything done in a couple of days!

Lay more eggs

Saturday the 3nd of April. Light drizzle.

Felt a bit anxcious because the translation is taking a lot more time than I thought. Texted Kang early in the morning for help. He’s been very busy as well.

The wife was preparing to go down the field, leaving the three little ones home with Ah-Che. They saved some hard boiled eggs for me for breakfast.

I kind of felt tired, not having enough sleep, the city was always too noisy at night. Ah-Che was going to finish the rest of the crossbow. He couldn’t wait for me to do the frames, so just the triggering piece made out of ox-bone. The bow section, if starting from freshly cut wood, takes two, three months to dry above the firepit. To me, the all organic, manual process and materials are just amazing. The cutting, the fitting, and the all simple but effective triggering mechanism is so pure. Ah-Che said he shot two little birds in the morning for the kids, unfortunately I wasn’t in early enough to see that. I don’t think these native people have a strong enough sense of “environmental protection”, feeding the family takes much higher priority, though the simple observation of more people, less birds does trouble them.

After crossbow, we reviewed the music we recorded the other day and give them proper corresponding tune names. If nothing else from the trip, at least, I have a big collection of original Qibon music that once Ah-Che is gone will be gone for good. Even though the instrument is still played at festivals at places by young people, a lot of the essense, the originality have been replaced with commerical mimicry with the form, but lacking the spirit behind.

Just after dinner, the wife called the little boy to bring some corns to feed the chicken at the ground floor of their shed. The boy poured a bow of corn down through a hole on the floor, then started calling: “Lay more eggs! Lay more eggs” – Incredibly cute.

Full Speed

Two days of heavy rain; and then the return of the blue sky.

It was pouring Tuesday morning. I hesitated to go up but did so eventually. Ah-che wasn’t home unfortunately, he went down to have his handicap certificate done, physical exam, pictures, and all that. His left shoulder was broken a few years back and was never operated on, so now he can rise his left arm to just chest height.

The wife stayed in with the three little kids. They can’t be quiet for even one second. The wife did some weaving, which looked rather pretty, the color, the movement. The big, long, all manual weaving machine will be a history soon.

I waited a couple of hours, roasting some root vegetables in the fire together. With still no signs of Ah-Che’s return and rain pouring down even harder, I decided to go down. A short stop at Ah-Yoo, the young guy who wanted to learn QiBon from Ah-Che resulted in some vague information about the tunes of the music. I like the way he talks — he like to use metaphors, like what he said about the world is a big garden, each group of people is one flower, one needs to have its own color and scant. An ethnic group, a country without its own tradition is like a flower without scant. That’s cute. By dark, we rode his moto-taxi down with his wife and sister.

Wednesday, another day of heavy rain. I called Ah-Che’s son earlier to confirm he would be home waiting for me. By the fireplace, we chatted about how to tune the Qibon Ah-Yoo talked about the day before and it opened up more infos. We went together to David the priest’s house and filmed them working on a music writing session, Ah-Che plays, David records.

I sensed a bit of hesitation from Ah-Che to go there, wasn’t quite sure why until the next day.

The session went fine, we recorded the six ways of tuning Qiben and wrote them down in simple notes. They are close enough, but not exactly the same tunes Qiben can make.

Kang made a visit to the musician’s home later in the afternoon and we had dinner together. A nice exchange for some thankful words from both me and Ah-Che. I believe respect has no language barrier. The wife roasted fava beans for us to snack on after dinner while we talked.

It was getting dark when we were about to leave, but a little joke from April Fool, the car won’t start. People in the village came to push-start, Ah-Yoo brought his motorcycle battery out to help jump, but nothing worked until someone accidently bumped the positive connector on the battery – it was all loose.

Thursday, all the jokes and rain stopped. Blue skies with white clouds painted the space in between the mountain tops. I got up early to take some pictures and ordered a birthday cake for the little girl — she’d be three.

It was almost 11 when I got up the village, had to make a trip back because I forgot the tapes I wanted the sister’s son to translate. Ah-Che was working on a new crossbow at the workshop and the house was kids-free. The wife took them to the field.

Another music recording session at his workshop. I wish I know better about field recording to get better sound. The Sanken is a great mic, but to get something studio quality is another matter.

When the sister’s son came, Ah-Che did a little teaching. Every time after a little wine for soothing the bones, Ah-Che gets rather talkative. I really appreciate his openness. Everything he knows about me came only from me, but he trusts me enough to tell his life story. He explained his hesitation; he wasn’t that keen on David and it confirmed a few things I saw I questioned. Religion following and decent moral, not necessarily an equal sign in between.

The sister came later with a new dress for the little girl, though the dress looked a bit like for a little clown. Ah-Che and the wife prepared a full meal with a fresh killed chicken and after dinner, people gathered to sing “happy birthday” to the little one with candles over birthday cake. The spread of birthday cake, another achievement of TV and globalization?

The sun was almost set when I walked a bit by the river on my way back until one of Ah-Che’s half brother’s son drove his van by and picked me up back to Fu Gong.

Friday, cloudy. Rode to the sisiter’s house at another village and got his son to work on translation. He is a good kid with great patience. He worked with me diligently on each sentence. We did hours of footage the whole day–even though he didn’t get up until almost 10. Throughout the tapes, once in a while, some great conversation emerged over the fireplace, something if they know I understand their langauge they won’t bring out. That’s the great thing working in an environment like this, taken as someone who doesn’t understand. So much more work though translating, so much more.

I’ll need another day for translation, some more from Ah-Che’s crossbow making and some other instruments. Less than a week, I should be able to head home.


It has been raining for two days now.

I spent the whole day Saturday transcribing and contemplated on how to present the materials. It turned out to be quite a self-searching process, searching for my own intention, my own path. My thoughts swing back and forth like a pendulum between the ideas of tradition and technology, of the virtue and limitation of each. The pivot point at the moment is my family, I miss my parents tremendously.

Sunday was rest day for these church-going mountain people. I waited until later in the afternoon to go up, hoping to talk to Ah-Ye, the young guy who attempted to learn from the musician but didn’t find him home. Around 6PM, Ah-Che went with me to church, it was raining, got some good shots of villagers going to the church but I’d need another sunny shot to go with what I had before.

Market day on Monday. I asked Ah-Che earlier to wait for me at home before coming down to the city. The little ones have already known to ask for ba-ba, anything made out of flour, whether steamed buns, fried bread sticks, or cakes and cookies, I often bring some up for them. Their diet is mostly rice. But not today, I was in a hurry coming up.

Ah-Che put the six knives in a bag and we headed down the mountain. Mists hang at the waist of the mountains, very pretty.

Sad thing about these villages is the lack of garbage processing facility. People were used to dealing with all things biodegradable, and they try to use the same methods to handle the rest. All they can do is trying to burn everything, from plastic to asphalt shingles and pile up or throw to the river those that can’t be burnt. If anything out there to transfer these petroleum based trash into energy …

Instead of following Ah-Che to the city, which I’ve filmed already, I went the opposite direction to his sister’s home. I need them to translate some dialogue I filmed before.

They live in a concrete house, an upgrade from the bamboo shed Ah-Che got. We tried a little bit of translating but their language skill is quite limited. Not until the son, a newly graduated doctor came back that we picked up some speed.

Just after noon, the electricity was out, and the son was going down to the city to prepare a friend’s wedding. Not my day. We agreed to do the rest Thursday.

Stories and such

Finally rained, but mostly sun shower. I went up early to film the storytelling and had some interview questions written down.

Ah-Che was working at his workshop. He looked a bit spaced today, maybe from the tiring trip up the mountain village. I waited for the sister’s husband to come with the kids and the son. I asked him a few questions. He was too camera shy. I got his points though.

Someone from over the other side of the mountain came with a piece of hardwood for the crossbow. Ah-Che wrapped it in big palm leaves, buried that under the fire ashes, and we had a big fire heating the wood up. The sister’s family showed up. We did four stories. Two were interesting. With more time to spare, I did the interview questions too. It’s a struggle to bring them out of a discussion to try to explain things to me but just let Ah-Che talk without interruption. Some of the sound wasn’t clean. And once the kids came back, it was all over. I probably need another session, but time is running short already.

On my way out of the village, Ah-Ye, the young guy who attempted to learn from Ah-Che last year caught me on his moto taxi and we rode to the city together. He is learning to drive and thinking about getting a taxi car. I’ll stop by his place for a few questions on Sunday.

Time to transcribe those stories and questions/answers.

Open the door to music

A colleague of Prof. Romero at CU introduced me to a music professor here at Kunming, who in turn pointed me to a retired local official with a lot of experience in Lisu culture. The contact came in handy as I’m just about to start the interviewing process, even though he won’t be available for another week or so.

I almost wished the weather is not so great all the times. I like shots of bad weathers.

Ah-Che was waiting for me at home, the wife and three little ones were getting ready to head to the market at the sister’s village. He took the performance seriously, dressed up in traditional ware and combed his hair nicely.

We set the shot up by the window. The bamboo house has such contrasts and light fills it’s not hard to make it look pretty. To get a clean sound though is another matter, the chicken, the pigs, the occasional car horns from the road amplified by the mountains.

We started with a few dance music, then moved on to two tunes Ah-Che composed based on his observation of birds singing and jumping between trees. Those two are the ones I like the best. After each song, I noted down as much as he could give out. It’s a pity we could only converse at the very basic level. I made him did them a few more times, and we ended in some more dance music, this time circular dance instead of the line dance we started with. I hate to tire him out, but I do need some more close up shots to smooth out the transition. Now I don’t feel I have as much time as I wanted already.

When taking rest, Ah-Che talked a lot more, which gave me more questions to ask in a couple of days when my translator showed up.

The crew came back with the little ones in new dresses and looking ecstatic. They insisted me staying for dinner. Afterwards, I took the same van down the mountain with Ah-Che and all his brothers. They needed to make a visit to an aunt in another village who just fell ill.

TV man

Drizzled a bit in the morning. Nice mists half way up the mountain.

When I showed up at Ah-Che’s house, the TV man made an unexpected (at least to me) visit. Yes, a TV man. He tuned the satellite dish while the little ones watched from upstair. A bamboo house and TV don’t seem to be able to co-exist but they do here. It would definitely help me show a story, especially as soon as the picture appeared on the TV screen, it was some crazy disco dance singing “this is happiness”. The TV man spoke fine Mandarin, anyone with some education could speak some here.

Ah-Che soon came back from the field, he used the money from those knives to hire an ox-puller to plow the field. I’ve already had some shots of others doing that so I decided I could skip these scenes of him.

After lunch, I went up the mountain to get some general shots of people working in the field. I need to restrain from doing too much pretty sceneries though.

One more day before music playing.

magical moments

Loud music from a wedding down the street kept me up way past midnight.

Woke up to another bright sunny day. The taxi mini-van I got on must have violated some rules, the traffic police beeped and horned at the poor driver, eventually got ahold of his license. He was let go evenutally, but without his license.

Ah-che wasn’t home. He said yesterday he was to do some work in the field before coming home to finish the rest of the lute. The wife and three kids were in though, finishing up their morning meal by the fire. They too left for the field, leaving me home to wait.

While I waited, Ah-che’s son rose from his sleep. He greeted me lightly, speaking perfect Mandarin. In a way, he represented the generation that rejected their own tradition. He talked on his cell phone by the door, which gave me a nice shot to make the point. Soon he left for the city. He said he drove a taxi. Driving here is considered a modern, advanced skill.

I waited some more before Ah-Che came back with his crossbows. Field work was too much, leaving no time for bird hunting. We chatted while he cooked lunch. The wife and the kids soon came back with baskets of bean stalks for the pigs, one big female and two cute little new-borns.

We returned to the workshop right above the pig pen after lunch. Some more chipping, fillings, polishing and it was time to add a cover soundboard. A piece was already handy, he just needed to cut it to fit the rest of the body.

What a process that is. The main body was shaved off to fit the thin cover board. The binding was done with a make-shift clamp made out of two random pieces of timber on the floor with a hemp string, and the application of only a little bit of glue, the only thing “modern” in the process. When the splint was disassembled, the remaining of the cover piece cut off, the lute polished, carefully marked at the neck and the body, then Ah-che took it down by the fire. With little hesitation, he inserted a thin piece of red-hot steel rod into a marked dot on the neck, followed by a thicker rod. Once the neck was done, the process moved to the cover. Everytime a fresh rod was inserted, Ah-che’s face disappeared behind the smoke. Knife and fire, the transformers in these mountain people’s life.

The newly formed lute was taken upstair again for more polishing. And out of my total surprise, Ah-che looked around and landed his sight on a piece of bamboo and cut a big piece off. The big piece was sliced into smaller ones, and he began shaping them into little pegs. Gosh that’s just amazing. Bamboo is the strongest material people have available in these mountains. And just like that, four bamboo pegs were done and fitted into the pegbox. Adding another little bamboo piece for the bridge, untwisted a steel cable of multiple strands, and Ah-Che was ready to thread the lute.

I watched amazed. Threading, peg twisting, and first pitch of sound came from the used-to-be a piece of hardwood. More tension, more tuning, and the music started. That’s just awesome, freaking awesome.

While Ah-Che played to the mountain sunset in apparant delight, the little girl climbed up the workshop and sat by his side, listened quietly. I couldn’t ask for more.

Market Day

It rained a little bit last night. If I didn’t stay up almost all night, I would’ve never known. I contemplated the idea that real art has no purpose, no function, but a rapture to take one into a space, a void between thoughts. The whole debate about what purpose came up again and I don’t seem to come up with an answer no matter where I go.

Up early to catch the morning clouds. I like the look of them rising over the mountain top. The village on the slope though never caught the light I hoped to see. Down the road, the water-logged rice paddies reflected the sunlight above, traversing the ever-changing clouds.

I thought Ah-Che had already left for the market in town so I played by the river, filming the water, the bridge. when I was able to leave, I met him coming down my way. So I made him walk the bridge while I filmed from below, and we caught a moto-taxi together so I could film him riding into town. If everything I’ve filmed so far leave him in centuries back, this short ten minutes ride will bring him right into a world of cell phones, fashion boutiques, and internet cafes.

We stopped at the bustling market place. Villagers from the mountain come down to the town market every five days. It’s the chance to trade and meet. Ah-Che got his usual spot with other knife sellers.

Even though it’s not the high season for selling knives (mostly people need it before the firewood cutting season around winter months), Ah-Che got three sold in a couple of hours. He obviously looked happy. Other knife-selllers were not that lucky.

When he was done for the day and chose to walk the around five miles road back home, I browsed the market too, one of my favorite activities in these small towns.
Tomorrow, we’ll finish the rest of the lute and then story-telling and music playing for the week ahead.