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.

Corn, under the sun

Cool and sunny, the air was crisp after a windy night.

The sister’s family was not there yet when I showed up in the morning. The musician was playing with a crossbow in the yard, a newer one he just made needed more tuning. He walked me up to the fire to have tea and boiled egg. It thundered here on the mountain the day before. They prayed before every meal. Their son, showed up briefly, said hardly a word, and disappeared.

After morning meal, we walked the narrow path to their plot of land on the hill. On our way, he cut off a few sticks by the road, I was curious to know what they were for.

Their patch of land is not that far away, with gorgeous view of the Nu River down below. Right before he started, the musician, AhChe Heng, prayed again by the field. Too bad he wasn’t facing me and I didn’t mic him.

He pulled out some strings, and used the sticks to make lines for the corn rows. How obvious. Using an axe, he loosened the soil, leveled it a bit, and continued down. Who can guess a piece of land on the hill can feed a family this way?

After a couple of rows, the sister’s showed up. She joined the digging crew while the doctor boyfriend planted seeds. When I took a break from filming, I asked for some corn kernels too to help out. Four in one hole.

Rows after rows, they went up and down the hill. The sun climbed higher, the cool breeze of the morning turned to simply heat. Even following them filming was tiring, I could only guess what it felt like swinging an axe hours after hours. I paid special attention to his hands again. They must be really rough, but they are capable of creating great music. I’m not rushing for him to play yet.

People had a short break with steam buns brought by the sister and some soft drink, not for long though, still had a lot to work on. The sister and her boyfriend switched role. Ah-Che never stopped. He is nearing 60, quite amazing what these mountain people are capable of.

We eneded the day with all the corn kernels ran out, but they kept on going until all the field had been dug properly.

The house was filled with smoke when dinner started cooking. The fire in the middle of the room, the center of a house. It looks so nice and romantic, but I’m sure it has it’s health problem. I do remember a talk given by a MIT researcher on low-tech method they invented to help replace these open fire-pit with stoves. Would that be something that this place needs?

Filming begins

After missing a day due to miscommunication between me, Kang, and the musician, yesterday (the 11th of March) I went up the mountain very early in the morning to catch the musician’s family before they head to the field.

When I got to his house, he’d already back with a crossbow and a shoulder bag filled with arrows. I couldn’t get where he had been to, his Mandarin is sparse. After a short break with tea, he went downstairs to sort the young walnut tree stems. They were given by the government for them to plant on the hills. He rebundled the branches of similar length together and placed them in the bamboo baskets.

Upstairs, his family gathered by the fire, preparing for a morning meal. For these farmers, they only have two big meals a day, so they have a whole day to work in the field without eating. His younger sister and her boyfriend, a retired doctor came to help with the planting. First they were hesitate to let me follow them but was convinced eventually.

Packed and we were on the road, the little girl about 3yrs old included. The path out of the village was fine for a while, until the group left the musician’s wife at a closer field with their granddaughter, and the sister pair left for another field. It became almost straight up. Their land is on the furthest lot away from the village. We climbed to the top, by a cell tower, and could see the junction where a small tributary joins the Nu River. It’s low water season, the small river looks very rocky as if nearly broken at places.

I set the camera up and film the planting process. In the backdrop, the emerald colored river curved between the mountains. I’m not expecting too much from the filming result today, just to have him get used to having me and a camera in front all the times.

The day gets hotter when the sun peaked through the clouds. After he was done with the quarter acre or so mountain top lot, we walked down the path to meet his sister.

They were on a very steep slope with little room to stand and plant. The ground is rocky too, a few holes the musician dug was filled with slates and he had to basket carrying dirt in from elsewhere.

I get interested in filming his hands, the same hands that could do so much.

Later in the afternoon, with still some bundles of young tree sprouts left, they decided to call it a day. We walked a very steep and narrow path down the mountain, joined the concrete drainage path, and met the wife and the little girl still up the field.

The little girl definitely has a strong attachment to the musician, likes to have him carrying her across the steams on our way back. Close to the village has a patch of bamboo. I like the view of them going back home together among these tall bamboo trees waving in the wind.

Everybody was exhausted, the little one was struggling not to fall asleep. They got the fire started, made tea, barley and sticky rice pancake before another meal of rice and veggie. The barley pancake was so filling I had little room left for anything else.

The sun was almost set when we left the house. The sister lived in another village 10 miles up the river. They took the little girl with them, so the musician and his wife would be child free to finish up the rest of the planting the next day.

I’ll come back the day after to film them plant corns and if time allows, some knife-making.

in the valley, getting ready to film

I left Beijing on the 6th of March and got in to FuGong, Yunnan on the morning of the 7th. That was after a 16hr bus ride followed by a 3 1/2 hrs flight from Beijing to Kunnming.

The bumpy ride made it hard to take a nap. I was fully awake the minute the mountainous Nu River canyon came in to view — even only a dark shadow in the night. At the border control just below Liu Ku, the first big city by the river, the young guard was puzzled at my passport. It seemed like forever before it was recorded and handed back to me. All the trips before, they only checked it on the way out.

Dizzled in FuGong, my home base for probably the next month or so. The city looked the same except a few new drainage ditches been dug out. I had a much needed nap, shower, and when the night fell, my friend Kang came back from his business trip and we met for tea at his tea house to catch up.

All was well. The next day (Sunday, the 8th), after almost a whole day of pussing around with errands, we headed up the mountain village to meet the old musician, and the priest who is a good friend of Kang.

The priest is a good-looking man but suffered from polio. Once the topic is right though, he gets quite funny. He too, was keen on learning from the musician but the old man’s lack of education made it hard for him to communicate. The priest knows some music, so he believes he can translate the way the old musician plays his lute to written notes. In a village like this one, such efforts are mostly just thoughts.

The old musician came out to meet us while Kang and I walked toward his house. He looked much shorter than I remembered but didn’t seem aged at all. The little girl used to be on his back is running around now, and as fiesty as ever. The musician’s wife made us tea and boiled eggs — I know that’s a special treat for guests. Kang acted like my translator. He was so talktive sometimes they just drifted to some conversation I had no idea about, which was fine, considering I just needed to have him agreeing on me coming later to film. The lack of education and material necessities don’t make the mountain people less humorous nor generous. Perhaps it’s exactly the pure good human nature that draws me here to tell their story.

The musician have a family funeral to attend to up on the mountain so I have another two days to spare before filming begins.