We leave Guiyang as swiftly as possible in search of Batik designs in the Anshun area. Traditional batik production is a complex process of applying bee’s wax to a white cotton-cloth by hand, then dip-dyeing the cloth in a vat of compounded indigo plant matter. The dyed material is then dried out to allow oxygen to bring colour to the material. The process is laborious; however it yields handmade products of incontestable quality and beauty.
On the road to Anshun, the odd, pimple-like karst formations surrounded by canola fields give us hope of a brighter week than what Guiyang promised. According to travel blogs that we had read, Anshun is supposed to be famous for Batik designs; however our arrival in town does not immediately reveal a thriving trade. On every street corner, a group of people are performing some kind of dance, or sport, or exercise accompanied by music: badminton, samurai sword displays, fan dances, choirs. The sound of hoiking is replaced by echoes of ‘Huangguoshu’: the taxi drivers’ attempts to take us to the famous waterfall just outside of town. We spend many hours wandering the streets of Anshun looking for Batik factories and exhibitions without luck. There is no evidence of the textile designs and the locals don’t seem to understand our requests.
Thus far our efforts to communicate in China have been hampered by the language and alphabet barrier. Most travel blogs for China are written in Chinese characters, without English translations, so we rely on help from the locals to find what we need. Without knowing Mandarin we try to use hand signals, but our gestures are met with confusion. We seem to be speaking a different body language. We learn from our mistakes early and start having addresses written down in Chinese characters. Unfortunately this doesn’t help our expeditions greatly: most locals don’t know the obscure addresses for factories we are searching for, and they seem adverse to search for it in their phone maps (something we can’t do). Even when we give people phone numbers to call with a note in Chinese characters explaining what we want, a conversation takes place that we don’t understand and cannot be translated and we are usually no closer to our goal.
We eventually give up, thinking that Anshun is no longer involved in the Batik trade. We later find out that there are a number of factories in Anshun that we missed. Our research tells us that nearby there is a stone stockade village called Shitouzhai, populated by the Bouyei minority. Apparently, over 80% of households have their own dye vat to produce Batik designs. Our research tells us that Bouyei girls usually start learning the batik painting techniques at an early age of 12 or 13, and all women in Shitouzhai are able to paint with wax. Hence it’s being named “the Hometown of Batik Painting”.
To get to Shitouzhai we aim for Huangguoshu and then convince a taxi driver to take us the final leg. The difficulty of finding Shitouzhai should give us some inkling of what to expect from the once popular tourist attraction. Travel blogs suggested that we would be met by Bouyei women at the entrance to the village and would be charged a 40 Yuan entry fee. We are instead dropped in an empty street. We walk amongst falling apart stone buildings and stone streets that crumble in the corners. Grassy mountains dot the landscape. A river trickles alongside the village, its best years long passed: a poor cousin to Huangguoshou just three kilometres away. The only tourists we see are groups of Chinese under gaudy umbrellas who have come for picnics in their finest wear. There is such little evidence of Batik textiles that at first we think we have the wrong town.
However, we find statues of Bouyei women performing tasks associated with Batik textiles along the river, but we can’t see any Batik fabrics. There is a map directing us to the ‘Batik rinsing pool’, but no women using it. We see infrastructure to host a thousand tourists, but the parking lots are empty. It feels like a model of an ancient village built for tourists that has since been abandoned.
We eventually find the Shitouzhai Museum’s displays of Batik designs which makes us hopeful that there are some artisans still in the village. We meet an old lady who is happy to show her fabrics at her door but when we ask if she does the wax work and dyeing herself she closes the door in our face.
One old lady ushers us inside her stone house, a baby still strapped to her back. The air inside is cold and fresh. There is no dye vat in her house even though the travel blogs said this was very common. She shows us a collection of mouldy fabrics but the conversation is limited without an interpreter. We leave hoping we hadn’t offended her.
We find what looks to be a shop on the street overlooking the river. A woman shows us her fabrics and by that time we have our questions prepared in Chinese characters. She is asking for 400 Yuan per metre, which is close to A$100 and too expensive for Jessie and Kartika, especially as there is no confirmation that these fabrics are made by the shopkeeper and there is no way of buying in bulk.
We later find out from a Batik expert that the Bouyei of Shitouzhai don’t make Batik any more. The area has become increasingly populated by Han Chinese due to the tourism associated with Huangguoshou waterfall. The local people have changed their practises in order to accommodate the tourism and survive.