Matang Takes its Toll

Trip Start Feb 03, 2008
Trip End Aug 16, 2009

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Flag of China  ,
Thursday, August 21, 2008

These women are desperate.

The first one spotted us before we even reached the corner. We hadn't even glimpsed the wooden houses or the welcoming arch before the village.

A woman's voice came out of a field, like the scarecrow's in The Wizard of Oz: "Ni hao."

She called to us, a smile in her voice, so we stopped and waited for her to pick her way through the stalks of corn and trailing squash vines to the road. Delicately, like a ballerina carrying her gym bag, she balanced a carrying pole on her left shoulder, balanced by two reeking buckets that had recently held human feces.

Holding our breaths we walked beside her down the dirt road, attempting conversation in Mandarin despite our clumsy phrasing and her thick rural accent.

Did we want to see batiks? She wanted to know, her smile brightening her sun-worn cheeks.

Sure, we said, dripping sweat. Maybe she'd take us to a nice shop with a breeze cooling it. Maybe she'd leave her stinky cargo behind.

We rounded the final corner and finally spotted Matang Village, a brown mass blending the bright greens of the corn and rice fields in front of it to the deeper greens of the forested hill behind it. The people who live here are the Gejia minority, officially part of the Miao minority but confusingly unlike them.

We look at the village with anticipation. It's about lunchtime, and this morning we'd skipped breakfast.

Our fertilizer lady smiles again and takes us on a different path, to a driveway that links some wooden dwellings with the dirt road to the highway.

The houses are made of dark painted timbers with a low-hanging roof and knee-high door jambs. The double doors swing to like in a Western saloon and through the gaps we can see lofts have been built within to provide sleeping quarters and storage space. We are brought in to the living room, opening off the middle door of the first house.

An old woman in traditional dress--white, peaked headdress reminiscent of the Alps, dark skirt and leggings with a medium-blue apron over it--smiles a toothy grin and ushers us into the welcome shade of her home. She goes to an adjoining room where a toddler and a TV wait for her return and brings back a heavy basket of fabric. These are her batiks, the same style of wax-and-dye artwork we'd seen in Shitouzhai in February. Our farmer lady disappears.

The new woman has an impressive collection, but before I can look at it fully the room is suddenly swarming with similarly dressed women, all with baskets of their own. In the few seconds since we came in and I put down my backpack, five other women have climbed over the high doorjamb and settled their baskets of wares on the floor. Dan sits by the doorway and tells the ladies I'm the one with the money.

Bad idea.

In no time, I'm draped in batiks of varying patterns and quality. Small pieces of bright embroidery layer my lap.

A few are trying the drop and drag technique on me--they drop a length of cloth on my arm while I'm looking at their neighbors' art and then seductively drag it off of my arm to get my attention. I'm trying really hard not to let their handiwork fall on the dusty floor, but am starting to feel a little claustrophobic from all the attention and all the cloth enveloping me on an already-hot summer day.

Their prices make me want to suffocate too. I'm trying to tell the difference between the real, hand-made batiks and the factory mass-produced ones. There's a quality difference with cloth too--the ones that feel like a hotel sheet probably used to be one. The other, rougher, cloth might be hand-loomed. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be much difference in price between these. And, using our February purchases as a guide, these batiks are eight times the price.

Their prices are so high I feel embarrassed to offer the price I'm willing to pay, so try to side step it by saying I don't like them much. This fails, so I get Dan to say he doesn't like them. We stand up and put on our bags, smiling and edging toward the doors, thankfully open.

Quickly, they are no longer batik makers but also silversmiths, and in all of their hands are silver bracelets, inferior to the ones we had just bought in Xijiang in quality and price. One woman, in a last-ditch effort, pulls out her own earrings and shoves them in my hands. She wants more for them than any earrings I've purchased in China to date. I try to decline politely.

Our backs to the entrance, our legs against the tall doorjamb, we face the wall of would-be saleswomen, who become pushier and pushier, though somehow still friendly and polite. To escape I settle on buying a silver hairpin shaped like a sunflower. Dan buys a rock that looks like a petrified shell. They relent, and we leave back to the dirt road, the sunny day and the promise of a new village to visit.

We descend to the small valley of Matang and go through the village's welcome arch, pass a brightly painted public toilet and an English sign welcoming us to this village of renowned batiks. Two paths lead around the village, one going by the biggest, newest-looking building. We hope it's a restaurant. We go to the building and try to ask the people sitting on the second floor balcony watching us if it's a restaurant. They don't understand the question, and looking around I see some signs that seem to indicate it's a police station. Oops.

We wander up the path and by traditional houses like the one we'd just been trapped in. They're beautiful and perfect for the terrain and the weather. The doors open to let light and heat in, close to block the wind out. The doorjamb I assume acts as a flood guard and the low eaves give more access under the roof for living and storing their families' necessities. We see lots of old women, all wearing the traditional dress or at least parts of it.

As we pass a particularly well-kept house, the grey-haired woman inside beckons us in for another look. There's no one else out, so I think we can avoid the crush of the last place. This woman seems better off, she has pictures up on the wall of her with other tourists and and of her painting the wax on the undyed cloth with her bamboo and metal tools and then dying the fabric in big plastic buckets. She shows me white and honey-colored templates of wax that she uses to make the designs. They're gorgeous, but I still can't bear to part with the money she's asking for, though I realize that it's probably worth it. I try to get her to show me a small piece, thinking the price will be comparably small, but no luck.

While I'm talking to the lady, Dan has stayed outside with a sneezing fit and it soon surrounded by a new crop of women with baskets and pointy headdresses. They come inside with the hostess and I and I realize that negotiation is impossible. I say good bye and thank you to the homeowner and Dan and I walk up the trail with the other basket women clustered around us, still hawking wares.

We want to take pictures of the houses and the people, but as Dan says, any bargaining we would want to do would be made more difficult by the sight of a big camera, let alone two.

The women lead us up to a concrete platform on top of the hill with shaded benches along the sides. Here, they hold a private market for us, laying their batiks and embroideries out and testing their best cajoling smiles on us.

To give us the prices without alerting their friends and competitors to the depths they're willing to sink to, each of the women carries a small crayon, marker or pen in her apron pocket and writes the prices on their hands. To counteroffer, they wanted me to write my price on their hands. That felt wrong, so I wrote it on my own, and ended up with a palm full of 10s and 20s, where theirs were full of 100s and 90s and above.

I bought a small headscarf, again as an escape tactic, and we tried to find out from the women if there was a restaurant in town. They said no, no way, so we got one of them to agree to cook us lunch at her house for 10 yuan each.

Her house was just like the other one we had been in, except the front room was full of harvested watermelons and the side room was occupied by several children watching the Olympic women's gymnastics competition on a shiny new TV. China does have a one-child policy, but as I understand it, minority groups are allowed more. Also, it may not be heavily enforced in the countryside.

The woman's husband started up his motorcycle and revved off down the dusty paths to get some meat for our lunch while our private market continued with some new women.

We hadn't been able to get anyone to go down in price on the pieces we liked best and the bargaining stalemate was getting awkward so Dan did a wonderful thing to lighten the atmosphere.

He performed some magic.

When Dan's brother came to visit last year, he gave Dan a brass disappearing coin trick from Thailand. It's a shiny round box that "magically" makes coins reappear and disappear. The women, gymnastics-supporting children and the hostess all loved it. They figured out how it was done, and soon the women were putting things in their bags, blowing on it, and pulling them out again with the same flourish Dan had shown when he made the coins appear. It broke the tension, and then, luckily it was time for lunch.

We had small pieces of stir-fried pork and a serving of hard tofu and pig fat with peppers and a lot of rice. The hostess kept filling our bowls and I felt bad for picking out the fatty bits as she made a big deal of pulling them out for me especially. After the meal, we sat digesting and watching the women's balance beam competition and ate one of the juicy watermelons from their front room.

The basket ladies had disappeared when we went in to eat, but one came back as we were finishing the watermelon. Without the entourage I was able to bargain a little and we agreed on a price that I felt, while still high, was fair. I got two batiks I'm pretty sure are hand-woven and hand-painted and felt like it was now safe to get out our cameras.

We walked around the village a little taking pictures of the residents separating grain from chaff with big wide baskets and zen garden-type rakes, but soon it got too hot to do much at all. The village's only store, a kiosk really, had no water, only lemon soda, yogurt drink and beer, so we decided to call it a day.

We walked back to the main road and flagged down a Kaili-bound bus after a few minutes of waiting. While we were waiting we saw a lot of people walking to the top of the hill that the highway was on. We talked about going up to see if it was a market, but we were both tired and the bus came quickly. As we rode by on the bus it looked like a kind of festival, and I was sorry we had missed it. Not so sorry though, that I didn't nap both on the bus and when we got back to Kaili.

In the end, I was happy that the village seems bent on preserving the heritage and the traditional arts, but sorry that the ladies had to sell so hard. I especially felt sorry for our hostess woman, whose children watched her nearly beg us to buy some batiks from her. We just didn't have the cash for what she was offering, so we tipped her over the stated price for her meal instead.

The next day, we explored Kaili a little and caught our train back to Zunyi and back to work.

* * *

What it cost:

Minibus from Kaili to the road to Matang (further 2 km walk): 5 RMB each, each way
Lunch at random village woman's house: 10 RMB each
Batiks: Too expensive! I finally found a small one for 10 RMB, and two larger ones for 45 RMB each. Still more than I thought I should have paid, but oh well!
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