Displacing Desire:
Travel & Popular Culture in China
by Beth E. Notar

Reviewed by Julia Kuehn, University of Hong Kong

What makes people travel to a particular place? Advertising and travel brochures, previous experience and personal preference, word-of mouth and historical cultural bonds, for sure, but Beth Notar, in her new study, also points to the relevance and power of popular culture for people’s choice of a holiday destination.

A number of (Western) scholars have commented on the hordes of The Lord of the Rings enthusiasts who have, after the film trilogy, travelled to New Zealand’s sublime mountainscape, and how The Da Vinci Code book and film have initiated new walking tours through Paris and trips to Scotland’s Roslyn church. Notar’s book focuses on the hitherto undocumented impact of popular culture (primarily Chinese) on China tourism.

Over ten years of anthropological field work has gone into Notar’s study of how Dali, a town in Yunnan province in the south west of China, turned from a remote mountain location into a popular travel destination for both Western and Chinese tourists. Notar’s study spans the years between 1984 when Dali, as part of China’s national opening to the outside world, received its first foreign travellers, and 2005 when the author undertook her most recent trip to the place.

Quantitative research, personal travel experiences and theories of travel and tourism, cosmopolitanism, cross-cultural contact, and postmodernity make this study an informative, critical-analytical and yet accessible contribution to, primarily, anthropology and tourism studies, which, however, also holds interest to scholars with a more general interest in popular culture in and travels to and in China.

Chapter One locates the Dali region – Dali being an administrative region, an alpine basin and a town – in the Tibetan borderlands and at the crossroads between what is now China, Tibet, Myanmar, and Vietnam, and as the homeland of one of China’s ethnic minority groups, the Bai.

Chapter Two explores how the then rather inaccessible and unknown Dali, paradoxically, became a popular destination for Western tourists when the Lonely Planet China tour guide, first published in 1984, described this place as ‘off the beaten track’ and as offering insights into ‘the real China’. Not unlike nineteenth-century travellers to China, such as the famous Isabella Bird, who wanted to escape the semi-colonised and ‘civilized’ world of treaty ports and larger cities and explore the vast beyond of ‘the real China’, masses of Western Lonely Planeteers (including the then student Notar herself) now followed the suggested itinerary of the guidebook into the hinterland. This influx of backpackers from the mid-1980s onwards brought about the establishment of hostels and hotels, Westernised cafés and eateries with, later, all the necessary commodities for the transnational traveller, including coca-cola and email. If the Lonely Planeteers sought to consume ‘authentic’ Chinese sights, Notar suggests, ‘they sought viscerally to consume “authentic” (i.e. familiar) foods and music from back home’ (45), thus causing Dali to participate, arguably, in the homogenizing process of modern tourism.

Chapters Three and Four move from the Western tourist in Dali to the Chinese tourist and analyse the impact of Chinese popular culture on Dali tourism. A 1959 movie musical, Five Golden Flowers (Wuduo Jinhua), and a 1963 Hong Kong martial arts novel, Heavenly Dragons (Tianlong babu), have, over the years, caused the establishment of Dali as both a romantic, rural retreat and a postmodern theme park. The movie musical – a sentimental love story set in Dali during the Great Leap Forward – represents for the modern national traveller not so much a reminder of the success of socialist modernization, as the film intended when it was released, but rather a nostalgic longing for the communal spirit of the past (if a latent cynicism of the reform era might still survive), and a personal want to act out a fantasy and dress up as a minority person for a day. The ‘Daliwood’ film city theme park that followed from the immense popularity of Jin Yong’s martial arts and fantasy novel Heavenly Dragons and its high-budget television adaptation, is, Notar argues, a manifestation of what Jean Baudrillard calls a ‘hyperreal’ place, just like Disney World; a place that blurs the distinction between the real and the imagined. National tourists but also Overseas Chinese – a younger generation than those who remember the world of Five Golden Flowers – flock to Dali in search of the (eleventh-century Dali) world of fantasy creatures, fearless male warriors, beautiful heroines, and Buddhist spirituality, living out their own fantasies and desires. ‘[H]istorical events are subsumed by imaginative ones, and the actual is subsumed by the fictional’ (110).

Chapter Five concludes with a theorisation of modern tourism’s homogenising and turning of places into what the anthropologist Marc Augé calls ‘non-places’; spaces like airports, railway stations, hotel chains and leisure parks that are not initially ‘places of identity, of relations and of history’ (Marc Augé, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity [London and New York: Verso, 1995], 51). These non-places of transport, transit, commerce and leisure are meant for a quick and easy consumption, but not for long-term habitation or ‘meaningful’ socialisation. Tourism has led to Dali’s building of more hotels, highways, and even an airport. The symbolic displacement – ‘the separation of representations from what they represent’ (135) – manifest in the Lonely Planet guide, the movie musical and the martial arts novel/ tv series representations of Dali has thus had larger implications for the society and the location, also causing the actual economic, geographical and psychological displacement of Dali people from the place itself. As such, Notar’s study is not only an excellent and important case study of the effects of (popular culture induced) tourism on one particular site in China, but also a haunting reminder of the down-side of postmodernity.

Beth E. Notar, Displacing Desire: Travel and Popular Culture in China,
Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2006. ISBN 978-0-8248-3071-7 (PB) $21.00  208 pp.

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