A dive into the quintessential Chinese tourist experience.
The bait was simply irresistible. Straight in my face: a collage of Tang Dynasty characters. I could be one of them too. I could be Tripitaka, long tails flowing down my ears. I could be General Zhang Liang, with spiky armored plates all over my body and a menacing sword. Or perhaps, I should become a Tang prince, taking a leisurely stroll beside a lotus pond, caressing my beard and making sure my shirt sleeve folds are just right. And surprise, surprise, I could even dress up like a court eunuch. As I stood mesmerized in front of this dream collage, the sales lady delivered the deal clincher, “Only 20 yuan here, at Yan’an, you pay 40.”
The place is just outside the Big Goose Pagoda at Xi’an, China. The traps had been set up at several vantage points, collage of costume photographs pasted on cardboard. These are common in all tourist attractions in China. There are some local flavors too. In Yan’an, holy site #2 for communists, you could dress up like a soldier from the Long March, with a plastic pistol and a toy mule. Costume photography is one of those greatest tourist moments in China and demand is high in this society hungry for antiquity long after the cultural purges of the Cultural Revolution.
As soon as we nodded the photographer arrived. She was in her forties, with a weather beaten skin, dressed in well-worn but not well-washed t-shirt and jeans. A professional looking camera hung from her neck. Otherwise, she could be mistaken for a Christmas tree, big bags dangling from all around her. We followed her inside a souvenir shop, walked up a few floors and then finally, after a good fifteen minutes of walking, we were at the studio.
This time-machine cum studio was dim and greasy. First, there was a huge plastic throne, all gilded. Then followed a wallpaper imitating a bamboo forest, then a wallpaper imitating a lotus pond, then a lot of trash and junk, broken imitation terracotta statue, and a crazy horse; heavily duct-taped. On the opposite wall, there was a backdrop of heaven, then another lotus pond scene, then again a lot of trash, headless terracotta soldier, air-cooler, and broken props. The carpet pretending to be a verdant lawn was crumpled. An umbrella, a hand-fan and a plastic sword lay on the floor without purpose. A fake guzheng and a fake pipa had the same fate; their strings were made of washing lines.
We walked past the studio to the dressing room. Four other customers were dressing up, three girls and one boy, all teenagers. These princesses were wearing snickers and big floral headgear with horns. The boy had chosen to be a warrior. Each customer had their own photographer, all women. The closet was overflowing with costumes and it was hard to choose any in this abundance. There was a big group of villagers who had just come in and were waiting behind us. We just took whatever we could pick up. I would be Tripitaka, the fictionalized version of Huen Tsang. My wife would be the princess who tries to allure him; an obstacle in his holy journey to get Buddhist scriptures from India. The photographer quickly fit the costumes on us with Velcro. I, an Indian Huen Tsang, drew laughs from everyone around. By the way, Tang Dynasty costumes seemed perfectly designed for Hot Yoga, for as soon as we wore them, we began sweating profusely.
Back at the studio, a queue had already formed for the backdrops. When our turn came, the photographer became a sudden bundle of energy, “Make a lotus with your hands, ok, look at camera, smile, ok, now make Orchid finger pose, ok, smile, click, now point your finger to the left, look at your finger, smile, click… now move to the bamboo garden, put the umbrella behind you, look, smile, click.. leave the umbrella, move to the throne, sit, spread out your hands, look up, smile, click, one leg forward, click.. you want the horse? No? Ok, move over to the lake then, sit down, touch the strings of the guzheng, Not like that, no, ok, click, now look up, smile, Orchid finger pose, no, no, why orchid finger pose on guzheng, just look down, click.. wait, your headgear is falling…ok, now, look down, click…lotus pond now, want to do something funny, ok, never mind, click, want more? Ok then, come, choose what you want at that desk.”
She had taken fifty photographs in ten minutes, talking non-stop, juggling around all the bags she was carrying. We were sweating profusely but delighted that we were finally leaving our mark in human history.
The processing counter was a computer whose display had been somehow held up with used soda bottles and tape. At the processing counter, you have to follow Hamurabi’s code of law:
“You will be shown the pictures on the computer screen one by one. Before moving on to the next picture, you have to decide whether you want a print of the picture or not. You can’t go back. Once you have shortlisted the pictures, you can’t again select from among these. You have to buy all of these, 20 yuan for each. You can and you should laminate these, 2 yuan a piece.”
Most of our pictures were blurred. Backdrops had encroached into each other’s territory. The red carpet at the center of the studio was overlapping with the fake lawn in most photographs. The photographers, after all, are not photographers. They are just migrants from the interior, most probably farmers given their weather-beaten skins, trying to eke out a living. The idea is to take a lot of pictures in a short time and hope that some of them turn out to the customer’s liking. The photographers are incentivized through commissions for each photo selected.
And how did it feel to be Tripitaka? Of course, it is suffocating hot to be a Tang Dynasty personality. When I was dressed and waiting in the queue for the backdrops, I felt anxious; “Move on others, give me my turn.” And while I was against the backdrops, I transformed into a tea-party radical; worried from all the clicks; what will the total bill come to? And yes, it was tempting to drool over the uniqueness of the man who managed to form a tenuous link between two neighboring civilizations which couldn’t be any further apart.