Since the late 1990s governments around Yunnan have spent increasingly large amounts of money on projects that commoditize local minority culture for tourist consumption.
The most successful example of this business strategy is Impression Lijiang (印象丽江) the music and dance performance created by Zhang Yimou (张艺谋), the director of acclaimed films including Red Sorghum and Raise the Red Lantern.
Set in Lijiang with Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in the background and featuring elements of local history and Naxi culture, Impression Lijiang has been packing in the tourists, taking hundreds of million of yuan in ticket sales annually. Impression Lijiang has been so successful that some Chinese financial commentators have labeled it "China's top artistic performance investment".
Last year Dali, which has long been number two to Lijiang in tourist visits, and Farewell My Concubine director Chen Kaige (陈凯歌), who has long stood in Zhang's shadow, unveiled Imagining Dali (希夷之大理), a music and dance performance staged in the northeast corner of Dali's old town with the Cangshan mountain range in the background.
But unlike its Lijiang counterpart, Imagining Dali has not boosted Dali's economy or raised its profile as a tourist destination. What was once touted by local officials and media as a "flagship tourism project" for Dali is now being acknowledged as a very troubled investment.
A recent Kunming Information Hub report has declared that the performance has reached a "box office crisis", noting that most nights the Eye of Dali Dream Theatre, where the show is held, has few audience members, with the number of attendees roughly the same as the number of performers.
Nevertheless, the show goes on nightly from 8:45 to 10:30, creating substantial noise and light pollution that can be felt throughout much of the old town. Prior to annoying many local residents with its loud nighttime performances and morning rehearsals, Imagining Dali already rubbed many people the wrong way by destroying a reservoir that had been used by nearby farmers for irrigation.
With a total investment of over 370 million yuan (US$58.6 million) and the backing of a government-owned company, Imagining Dali is an expensive and high-profile tourism investment. It was originally hoped that Zhang would create an outdoor performance for Dali, but due to an exclusivity clause in his Impression Lijiang contract, Zhang was not allowed to create such a performance elsewhere in Yunnan.
After failing to land Zhang, investors contacted Chen, whose career had been on a slow downward trend with recent highlights including the highly commercial The Promise and the government-produced patriotic film Founding of a Nation.
The concerns raised by the destruction of the reservoir are not the first instance in which Chen's work has drawn criticism for potentially harming the environment in Yunnan.
In 2006, Chen was fined US$11,250 for destroying vegetation at Bigu Lake in northwest Yunnan during filming of The Promise.
In addition to destroying the reservoir, Chen's Dali performance has also seriously altered one of China's better-preserved old towns, occupying 220 mu (14.7 hectares) of historically valuable land. Additionally, the large arch that spans the theater's stage sticks out in stark contrast to the old town's traditional Bai architecture.
As things stand right now, attendance of Imagining Dali is dismal. Organizers are citing three primary reasons for this – cold weather, the need to nurture the market and Dali's challenging tourism environment.
Should Imagining Dali stage a remarkable turnaround and become profitable this year, it is possible that it will manage to become an accepted part of Dali's old town. But if attendance fails to pick up after the passing of winter, it is likely that the stage and the performance itself will be viewed locally as embarrassing monuments to Dali's obsession with trying to emulate Lijiang.© Copyright 2005-2021 GoKunming.com all rights reserved. This material may not be republished, rewritten or redistributed without permission.