In “Chinese Citizens on Tour in Europe”, Evan Osnos’s terrific piece in the New Yorker, readers learn about one of the most remarkable effects of China’s rapidly growing middle class: tourism. In 2010, Osnos explained, more than 57 million Chinese went abroad, mostly in guided tour groups, making China the number three country worldwide in international tourism. It’s in this context that The Journey West Travel Office, set up by New York artist Stephanie Rothenberg and Chicago artist Dan S. Wang, arrived in Beijing’s Drum and Bell Tower area.
It’s one of the most high-trafficked areas for tourists foreign and Chinese alike, as the towers were once the city’s primary timekeepers. The immediate neighborhood features a mixture of hip cafes and bars with traditional hutongs (alleyways).
The Travel Office is both performance and installation, a blend of “fake real” that Rothenberg told me is common to her work. “The project is more like a platform for discourse,” she explained over a telephone interview. “There’s this whole emerging middle class in China, and the tourism industry has really boomed. I’ve seen the mass consumer culture grow in the past five years.”
“It’s kind of an independent project,” Rothenberg continued, noting the Office’s distance from 798 Art Zone, the primary gallery district of Beijing. “How do you get people, in terms of an audience? There are lots of tourists, and lots of locals who couldn’t afford the tours. And how do you get an art audience down there?”
The Office features actual tours conducted by American artists, showing another side of America that the average Chinese national might not know about. A native Los Angelena, I was drawn to The Majesty of Parking Lots Tour (浩瀚停车场之旅), led by Ryan Griffs, “a leading expert on the history, economics, and aesthetics of America’s parking lots”.
No other tour unlocks the secrets of the humble parking lot, a modern convenience which by now qualifies as America’s greatest collective achievement in the built environment, easily surpassing the parking lots of Japan and Europe in variation, frequency, honest simplicity, and profitability.
The Edible Liberty Tour (自由女神美食之旅), led by “Wildman” Steve Brill, promises many culinary delights to be found in iconic Central Park:
In the unknown pockets of the world’s most renowned city park, tour participants will be shown an extensive range of edible and medicinal wild plants and mushrooms. These are the pure foods of nature, still available in the heart of a global metropolis. Spring, summer, and fall offerings vary but are uniformly impressive in their freshness, unusual flavors, and legendary medicinal qualities.
They’re all real tours, complete with specific itineraries and budgets, ranging around $6,000. “We hired people for a real travel office. We would help people arrange airfare and hotel.” Unfortunately, nobody signed up for tours, but not for a lack of interest. “It seemed like the younger generation were more interested. Older people would peek in and were curious.” If she were to try again, she said, she would work with an existing management company, as Chinese tourists by and large travel in large groups.
In addition to the functioning office, Rothenberg and Wong curated a series of “special events” to spark dialogue and attract Beijing’s art community. Italian artist Alessandro Rolandi and Japanese artist Megumi Shimizu performed Something on the Way, a four-hour slow walk of a few hundred yards from the Travel Office to Za Jia (杂家), a nearby art bar and film center named after China’s Miscellaneous School.
Beijing artist Chak Man Lei danced tango (跳舞) in the street just outside the Office, dodging taxis, pedestrian, tourists and bicycles. Bike drivers lined up to watch the performance, which lasted some four hours. When asked for his opinion, one driver simply smiled at me and said, “Fun.”
The performance that most closely related to the theme of travel and the introduction of American culture was the Fourth of July celebration. Situated in the plaza between the Drum Tower and the Bell Tower, the celebration featured a dance routine, jugglers and even fireworks simulated with confetti. A large crowd of local Beijingers and expats gathered to watch, and afterward, we enjoyed homemade peach cobbler and hot dogs barbecued on the skewers so commonly found on Beijing’s streets.
As a recent American expat in Beijing, I started thinking about the difference between the America that’s exported to the world and seen in cheesy tours, and the America that I know after multiple trips around the country. There’s a big difference between McDonald’s and homemade peach cobbler, between the Los Angeles of Sunset Blvd. and the Los Angeles of endless parking lots, and the Travel Office captured that tension in a quirky and fun way.
And yet, despite the festive American atmosphere, we were still foreigners in a foreign land. Pretty soon, just as the song and dance routine was starting to pick up, the old men and women of Old Beijing began their nightly line dance exercises. The music quickly drowned out the Travel Office’s music, and even some of the Americans joined in on the line dancing (I caught a little of this on my Youku channel).
“I didn’t realize that the locals started their evening dancing as early as they did,” Rothenberg told me. “In a way I feel like this collusion of performance and locals epitomized what the piece was really about.”