Yangshuo County, Guilin, China
September 4 and 6, 2017
This street was made for walking 1,400 years ago. The oldest in Yangshuo, West Street was still a promenade when I pounded its pavement of marble. Since the county opened up to tourism in the 1980s, the pedestrian street had also become a melting pot, a conglomeration of cultures catering to Yangshuo’s international visitors. Chinese out-of-towners, though, outnumbered foreigners in the unending stream of people.
My friend Quinn toured me through much of its 517-meter S-shaped length. KFC could not be missed right at the approach to the street. What could have been any tourist trap was set apart by the backdrop of misshapen silhouettes of karst peaks. As nighttime erased the typical Yangshuo horizon, lights of commerce took over and the street could have been any other.
Never mind that we had been up and about the entire day touring Yangshuo. Blinking neon and thumping bassline gave me my second wind to paint the town red with Quinn of the Night. Bar barkers held up the flow of people inching through narrow side streets. Some were solicitous, a few thought they were bouncers, putting off potential customers instead. One such interaction between an overzealous barker and a random tourist escalated quickly, but cooler heads intervened before it turned into a brawl. Lean season competition was cutthroat.
Shots of alcohol pumped up our veins for a night on the town. Our bar of choice pulled out all the stops – a live band AND a pole dancer – to keep the fickle clientele. Both performances were worth the beer cheers, but the performers could have put more enthusiasm to a slow night. We hopped over to a dance club for some action. The lit-up tunnel entrance intrigued us enough to walk into. And just like that I became an uncle on the loose amidst the packed millennial crowd twerking and waving glow sticks.
The street was even more awake at a later hour. And the attractions more adult. Buxom beauties, likely Russian or Ukrainian models, beckoned men to their display windows. It was a sign we should call it a night. Quinn had one too many for the road. Impaired judgment had him decide to go back to our digs on foot. The subsequent walkathon in the dead of night lasted until we could not take a step further and called for a DiDi ride.
West Street was not only for a couple of uncles getting wasted. It was a place to waste money I did not have much of, anyway. Instead, I spent time people-watching. It seemed half the county had business in this street. Older vendors peddled strange items on carts and in kiosks as younger ones modeled the clothing they were selling in the middle of the street. Buskers performed tribal dances and played instruments to sell their wares. Art was inextricably linked with commerce and indigenous culture was the commodity.
All things traditional could be found here. Clothing choices covered the range from silky Han qipao to silvery Miao costumes and accessories. Handicrafts and artworks were made on the spot in ateliers. Cookie-cutter souvenirs like T-shirts and fridge magnets spilled out from tightly-stocked stalls. Street food and designer coffee had their respective stops and shops. There was something for everyone in West Street.
The old street had grown along with the tourism boom. A decidedly modern area seemed annexed at a more recent time. The central lagoon reflected both buildings and mountains around it, creating a Zen vibe complete with a pink tree and a boat house. Globalization had certainly caught up with this ancient street. But I had to hand it to Yangshuo for disguising international chains in traditional architecture. Starbucks was a wooden temple and McDonald’s was a stone house. I applauded the effort to keep them from sticking out like a sore thumb that they actually were.
An unadulterated homage to heritage was too much to ask for. A three-level mall, not too big for its purpose, had risen beside the reflecting pool and a modern covered bridge where lovers tied heart-shaped cards bearing heartfelt messages on the metal lattice. This was the NEW China after all and, even in rural Yangshuo, we needed to be reminded. A lone fisherman catching his dinner in one of the waterways, however, was a dead giveaway that old ways of life remained in the face of development.
For better or for worse, this was the West Street I came to know in its long history. Whether one embraced or despised what it had become in our lifetime was beside the point. The oldest street in Yangshuo was still as robust and vital as it had been in centuries past. The more things changed, the more they stayed the same.