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.

green olive

It was another corn planting day yesterday, this time at a terraced field by the river. The mountains here are always shrouded in mist, one could never tell if that was fog or smoke from all the houses high up there. The crew with three little kids pasted themselves into that background. The little girl dressed in red stood out particularly. She played by herself for a long time, then the heat of the day got to her and she wept profoundly for attention until Ah-Che came for the rescue.

I left them earlier about mid-day and walked the long winding path back to the village. The path zigzagged deep into the canyons. What amazes me was every inch of usable land was used fully. Where a small stream cuts a near vertical slope, people still manage to layer the slope and planted a couple of corn here, a few sprigs of rice there. I learnt from the priest that most villages’ name in the area end in ‘Di’, meaning flat, though from outsiders’ point of view, there is nothing flat about these villages hugging the mountain side.

David was busy sewing Lisu traditional dresses along with his wife. His handicap barely stops him from doing anything. They had a deadline to catch up so we planned to do the photo thing another time.

Back to town, I stopped by the market and bought a one-yuan worth of green olive. I only had them once before so this time I’m prepared. They are the strangest fruit I’ve ever eaten, first it was bitter and sour and sticking to your month, then endurance and patience were rewarded with mouth-watering sweetness unlike anything else. If all the efforts could be like eating green olive.

From timber to lute

Got lots of information from the Lemo elder, who actually prefers to call themselves the Banis, even though officially they’re part of the Bai ethnic group. For those Banis who still practice traditional religion, they believe everything in nature has spirits. Whether that belief comes from fear because of lack of science or conscious judgement is something debatable though.

As usual, at day-break, I rode up to the village. Ah-Che was already at his workshop when I came to his house. He had a few pieces of hardwood ready to be transformed to the instrument he plays, a four-string lute they call Qibon.

The cutting, the shaving, the chipping, everything was done by hand. Only someone who has been doing it all his life could perform with such precision, with so primative tools at hand. Little by little, the lute started to take shape. Could it be the same thought process when michelongilo shaped David, waiting for the image to emerge from the formless to the form? As time goes by, the formless became the right thickness, the right angle, the right feel. I believe that’s how life is added to a piece of hardwood.

David called in the middle of the lute-making. I went with Ah-Che to meet a group of disinterested government officials came down for a business trip, which accounted for nothing more than eat, drink, and smoke. As they devour, Ah-Che played. I didn’t like that picture.

We were both tired when we got back so we decided to finish up the rest of the lute on Saturday. Tomorrow will be another corn-planting day.

The sisters came again to help harvesting fava-beans. Down the field, the wife, three little kids and the sisters were busy picking. I like the shots of the wife moving through high beanstalks.

For dinner, Ah-Che caught a roaster. The same pile of woodshavings fueled a pot of delicous chicken soup for all of us. Nothing goes wasted here. If that piece of hardwood has spirit, that spirit has already been transformed to various forms, through us, and in us.

Sunday church

Feeling much better after a massive infusion of liquid, a whole watermelon, countless number of oranges, cups of water with a little bit of cold med.

Later in the morning, I headed to the village. For those Christians in that village, no work of any kind on Sunday. The whole day is occupied with church going, singing, dancing, listening to preachings, and more in the same order, three sessions a day, two hours each. Accompanied with the Sunday routine, no smoking and no drinking.

The wife was dressing the little girl up with I came to their house. The traditional Lisu dresses are colorful with lots of accessaries. The little girl, already very good-looking naturally, was even more adorable with red-beaded headware and skirt, albeit a bit too big for her size.

I had some tea with Ah-Che before following him to the church. He was kind of late, the session had already started. People in the village know where to sit for their church session, men on the left, women on the right, so when they sing, they’ve already in the correct part of the chorus.

The priest, David was there. I went to ask him for permission to film once again. Not that people there have problems with me filming, but they are too nervous about my camera. I couldn’t get a few seconds before someone started staring at it. Somehow I didn’t mic-ed Ah-Che right, I couldn’t hear much from his channel, only later did I find out the mute switch was on. Uggg, he didn’t sing that much, and I should have a lot more time later.

Women led the way out after the session — a nice gesture.

I chatted with David a little bit afterwards. He is organizing some clothing donation to poor families up the mountain and was looking for donation that could help some children to go to school in the city. As much as I got so fed up with some of the ways Christian doctrines are being practiced back home, I still believe the good intention people have no matter what their belief system is.

Back to Ah-Che’s house, he had fresh boiled eggs for me to take away. I couldn’t reject.

Tomorrow I’m going to Liu-Ku to meet a Lemo minority elder, a friend of Kang. Lemo people is the only group in the Nu River canyon who kept their original native religion and strongly rejected Christianity.


I felt tired waking up, thirsty and a little bit of sore throat. Must have gotten too much sun the day before and not enough water.

The bridge going to the village, a steal hanging bridge was wet as always. The morning mist still hanged by the mountain side so I stopped for a little bit of scenery shot — I haven’t done much of that yet.

Ah-Che was in the yard again with his crossbow. Seems like that’s his daily routine. The wife soon left after breakfast to the field, and Ah-Che stayed with me and the little girl. A knife-making day.

Everything started with a piece of scrap steel. The blower got the tiniest engine to power it on. Electricity made it easier, though just by looking at the way it was used, one can hardly think about industrial production of any sort.

Coal burning, red-hot steel, the pounding, the hammer, from all I can tell, it’s all hand-made. He made a longer one about one foot, and a small, finger-length piercing knife. After the grinding, it was cold-water shocking, and more grinding before he went up to his workshop to scavenge something for the handles. And as if as simple as that, two knives were done.

The little girl was quiet for a while, and of course, she got enough chances to create troubles. Ah-Che has the patience of a mountain.

When resting by the fire, we chatted a bit. He could give out more Mandarin now, probably not as nervous about talking to me as before. Despite not even able to write down his own name in Chinese character, I can sense he has a lot in his mind.