It had been a long day. We’d already visited three previous villages and all had been crowded, touristy, cleaned up and some partially rebuilt. I was not hopeful that the last village – Wangkou – would be any different. But the minute I saw it, from the scenic overlook across the river, I sensed it would be different. And yes while I liked the village for its state of authentic decay – looking exactly like a 1000-year-old village would – crumbly algaed walls and all, it also left me reflective about my search for ‘authenticity’ in travel.
There has been a Wangkou in existence since the Song dynasty – roughly about a thousand years ago. Once a flourishing river port, it is a village in quiet decline today, populated mostly by the very young or the very old. Today the vessels for transporting people and goods up and down the river are gone and in their place are a handful of rafts for tourists. Life seems to have slowed to a crawl in this village. Here, tourism seems more of an afterthought than the mission it seems to be for the other old towns.
Wangkou’s main street lies on the outer rim of the old village. It is long and narrow, flanked by houses on both sides, with the river running just below. The charm of Wangkou lies in the fact that this is still a real living space. Like a town that’s comfortable in its skin, the doors to the houses were left unlocked and open, allowing us glimpses into people’s living rooms, a calligrapher’s studio, a dentist and a medical clinic. There were some souvenir stores but these were only a handful unlike Likeng where the entire main street seems to have been turned over into cafe and souvenir central.
Perhaps it was the rain, but except for some villagers and a couple of chickens who acted as if they owned the place, we pretty much had Wangkou to ourselves that afternoon.
In Wangkou, most of the villagers are surnamed Yu. One of the most important buildings of the village is this cavernous hall (see below) built to honour theancestors of the Yu family. Typically the ancestral halls comprise two couryards, each raised above the other by a series of steps. The one at the back is on the highest level and is the most important space in the building. The Yu Ancestral Hall is not huge but it has impressive wood carvings in the beams and rafters, a hallmark of Hui architecture.
In visiting Wangkou, it also left me thinking if it was fair or realistic to keep searching for authenticity according to my definitions. Places like Likeng, Jiangwan etc may be touristy but why would that be any less ‘authentic’ when you consider that people also live and work there, even if their main trade is now tourism? It speaks of a certain sense of entitlement or reverse snobbery that I can waltz into a village, judge it for its authenticity and then waltz back out, all while remaining in my comfort zone.
So a place like Wangkou may enchant people like me who approve of its decay simply because it conforms to my expectations of what an ‘authentic’ village may be. But then I am only there for a couple of hours. I do not live there and I do not struggle to make a living there. Why would these villagers not wish for progress to come – and if progress comes in the form of tourism dollars then why not?
This reminds me of how some would fondly recall Singapore in the 70s or 80s to be more colourful – when the food seemed to taste better for being in the back alleys, when a bit of disorder made it seem more charming. But to me, I would not want to regress or halt progress and development just for the sake of ‘authenticity’ and charm. So then what gives me the right to now, in my current affluence, visit another country and criticise it for being less than real?
To get to Wangkou, either take a day tour which would usually include other three to four white villages. I’ve also read that the regular public bus does stop at Wangkou village but I cannot be sure how frequent this may be. The best option would be hire a taxi and driver for the day which would likely cost about RMB300 to 350.