first week of ethnographic “field camp” in heshun

The first week in ancient Heshun (腾冲市和顺古镇) was a rush to the senses. Clean air and clear skies set off renovated homes and fields of rape flowers, while at night it was possible to count stars. We ate bean porridge seasoned with local chili sauce and stood in line to eat  bean cake rolls, and as we left the restaurant we brushed our hands against the cool surface of volcanic stone. Although roads now thread through protected forest areas, nevertheless tourism has transformed Heshun’s “scenic area,” which costs 55 yuan to visit. The ticket includes entry to the town’s main historic attractions. Consequently, “scenic” Heshun is as modern as anywhere else in China: within its narrow allies, tourists navigate a smorgasbord of imported goods and plastic containers, fluffy kittens and easy-going golden retrievers, as well as stores selling luxury items such as Myanmar jade, “southern red” jade, silver jewelry, and local ceramics.

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In addition to sites that hint at the area’s historic connection to Myanmar, Tengchong more generally boasts fabulous hot springs, including the famous hot sea (热海). The Bolian Resorts chain has a hot spring resort in Heshun, its architecture and layout producing a polished and uncluttered experience.

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So. Bringing students into this environment to do a two-week class in ethnographic methods presented all sorts of opportunities and challenges and keeping our eyes on what was happening required a double gaze–one eye on Heshun and the other on China’s tourist industry. On the one hand, the people were friendly and open to chatting, while on the other hand, the conversation kept coming back to how outsiders–especially their desires–were reshaping the landscape and its possibilities. Outsiders from Sichuan and Guangdong, who had come to Heshun to set up small businesses, for example, were interested in a laid back lifestyle. Tourists were interested in having fun, sanitary, and “authentic” experiences. Meanwhile, most high school graduates had left the area to work in cities in Sichuan and Guangdong. In contrast, Heshun locals depended on land rents and, if they didn’t own land, selling vegetables in the local market or working in a hostel to make ends meet.

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