created because they produce new sources for what Bourdieu (1984) called “cultural capital.” Historical sites, preserved as such, are certainly important sources of cultural capital, but the amount of this they provide is fixed, determined by their historical significance. Nations and locales mine this fixed asset by developing the historical site as a unique tourist destination (See MacCannell, 44-45).
Themed destinations break with the historical logic by creating their own uniqueness outside of any history, from an invented cultural production. Disney parks are prime examples. Now cloned from the California “original” (or rather the “non-original”) to Florida, Paris, Tokyo, and soon, Hong Kong; these parks have “visioneered” an acutely ahistorical cultural artifact. This artifact is bound neither by history nor location. As an example, the Shenzhen Splendid China theme park was copied in Florida, not far from Disneyworld.
The Florida park opening was marked by demonstrations about the issue of Tibet, and it never acquired a sufficient customer numbers. The park languished financially for ten years before declaring bankruptcy and closing in December of 2003.
In part, these new locales are
What was perhaps unexpected is how ethnic cultural theme parks have managed to copy the Disney example and invent new cultural capital through the same sort of cultural alchemy.
Consuming “Constructed Culture”
The production of intentional tradition at ethnic cultural theme parks creates practices that may not, in the past, have been accepted by audiences as “traditional” practices. But today, their audiences quite readily accept these traditional artifacts, even though they represent at best a sort of “constructed culture.” In fact, this constructed cultural output is actually preferred by what Mike Featherstone (and others) have called “post-tourists;” “Here we have typical sites for what have been referred to as ‘post-tourists’, people who adopt a postmodern de-centred orientation towards tourist experiences. Post-tourists have no time for authenticity and revel in the constructed simulational nature of contemporary tourism, which they know is only a game” (Featherstone 1991, 102).
The intentional traditions of ethnic cultural theme parks are—to their producers and consumers alike—traditional enough to offer an authentic experience. The seriousness of the intentions (signaled mainly by budget and attention to high production value) is now sufficient to legitimate the authenticity of the resulting practice. This means that their content is not legitimated by historical use, but rather, by the intentions of the producer. The claim made here is that anthropologists can no longer look at the content of ethnic theme parks as either a copy of some carefully borrowed traditional practice or as merely fantasy entertainment with no legitimate claim to traditional authority. Today, these parks are building cultural traditions the way Disney builds fantasies.
Intentional tradition mines the front region cultural practices of tourist destinations world-wide to construct cultural practices that the “post-tourist” in China, Japan, and elsewhere, apparently desires and pays to consume. But do these practices inform the ethnic identities of the performers or the consumers? Is there a corresponding “intentional ethnicity?” It may be worthwhile remembering that tourism has been the largest industry in the world for some years now. State tourism organizations in nations across the globe are investing in new destinations. Ethnic groups that achieve state recognition in this arena find that their relationship to the state and their internal group dynamics may be profoundly affected (Wood 1984, 1997). Once the groups have been selected by the state to participate in ventures such as ethnic cultural theme parks, the process of intentional tradition determines which of the markers (MacCannell, 74) are selected as ethnic icons. For example, in the Wa village at Chinese Folklore Villages and the Ethnic Villages in Kunming, the bleached skulls of buffalo are prominently displayed. Dances, songs, costumes—the whole repertoire of the ethnic theme park village becomes a set of ethnic markers. These markers are not simply externally applied to the performers, but are created through a dialogic process between the cultural performers and the managers, and also between the performers and their audience. Picard (1995, 1996) has noted this effect in Bali. Oakes (1997) noted that tourism in China—in response to the official recognition that the state provides to the fifty-five ethnic minorities, and the state’s ability to open up regions for international tourism—is a primary engine for ethnic groups to acquire and manage local identities.
Professional ethnic cultural performers returning from their contracted labor in theme parks in Beijing, Shenzhen, or Kunming, bring back more than the financial savings they have earned. Having danced in the theme park village shows running every hour or so, their performances achieve a level of professionalism far beyond that available back in the ethnic locale, where a dance might occur once a year, or even once in a lifetime (for a wedding ceremonial). Their dances from the parks are sometimes recreated to attract tourists to their home villages (Kirshenblatt-Gimblet 1998, 61). And having represented local ethnic identity in front of thousands, they achieve a status as a performer of traditional culture—however, their “tradition” is now informed by the intentional tradition practices from the theme park.
Intentional traditions treat cultural production as a form of expression removed from history as their primary source of legitimation. Instead, the resulting “tradition” is presented in terms of its aesthetic quality and how it measures up with other practices, local or global. Theme parks are free to—and expected to—borrow from and innovate off of other theme parks around the world. And when the park’s theme is “traditional culture” the resulting practices often blend elements from a variety of sources, with little regard for the constraints of the historical communities that might also claim authority over the tradition.
One example of intentional tradition is the “ethnic” dances in the Chinese Folklore Villages in Shenzhen. Each dance was choreographed by the park staff to contrast with the other village dances so that the tourist would not see dances with similar styles in neighboring village performances. Elsewhere, at the “Maori” village in Window of the World, Wa and Uighur dancers learned their performances from Maori dancers from the Polynesian Cultural Center in Hawaii, who visited Shenzhen in order to train the dancers. But there are no Maoris in the Maori village. By 2002, in Huis ten Bosch, Romanian musicians and singers had replaced Dutch entertainers as a cost-cutting measure. Most of the costumed paraders in the daily grand parade in Parque España are local Japanese employees.
Huis ten Bosch declared bankruptcy in 2004, and defaulted on its nearly US $3 billion loan to the Industrial Bank of Japan. The park remains open and attracts millions of visitors a year.
Importantly, however, intentional traditions do not claim to provide a critique of the traditions they remake, nor do they add any type of performance “frame” to these. They do not parody or satirize the historical tradition. They simply acquire this and re-present it as something they are authorized to innovate upon. While it might be easier to innovate a tradition when representing someone else’s culture (as the Wa do in the “African” village in Window on the World), there seem to be few barriers to innovating on regional ethnic cultural traditions at these parks.
Competition with other parks is only one reason why cultural theme parks innovate instead of borrowing from traditional authority. The ethnic performers are also competing with one another in their villages and with other villages in the park to gain audience approval. And, in China, the parks are viewed as national cultural centers that need to add something of value as national cultural landscape. In Shenzhen, the Chinese Folklore Villages, Window on the World, and Happy Valley theme parks each produce lavish evening performances, which combine large professional casts, theatrical lighting, and orchestral music.
In the summer of 2002 the Window on the World evening show tracked world history from the Stone Age to the modern era. Over at Happy Valley, an “Aztec Carnival” was performed on the edge of an enormous swimming pool (with the audience in the pool), while at the Chinese Folklore Villages a parade of Chinese historical periods and theatrical forms assembled into a grand finale of song and fireworks. Earlier in the evening, inside a theater, Han actors put on costume extravaganza, based partly on ethnic styles and partly on globalized dinner theater (e.g. learning from Las Vegas) models. These evening events increase the paid attendance at the parks and cater to a market for short-time tourists who are bussed in after their supper banquets elsewhere. The cultural workers from the ethnic villages are expected to also work these evening shows, and some become headline performers. This is a step toward long-term employment with the company.
The constructed aspects of cultural production in the parks means that the performers become skilled in several styles of entertainment. “… the initial design and the development of the company, this entire place, especially the nationality villages, is a result of the opening and reforming policy in China,” noted one of the managers at the Chinese Folklore Villages in Shenzhen. Formerly a dancer in one of the ethnic troupes, he had risen in the company to become a choreographer and manager.
He also explained how the various entertainments fit together into a synthetic experience: “I classify our nationality culture [productions] into three levels, because as managers in the Folklore Villages we have to imagine the point of view of the audiences. The first level consists of primitive aspects such as dance, singing, and costumes, and also includes interactive activities. The second level involves professional modifications to some aspects of these cultural productions. The third requires research in order to further [develop] creative modifications through big shows and commercial packaging to build a perfect items of Chinese culture.” These three levels are difficult to keep separate in practice, as the same employees may perform at all three levels. Career advancement is keyed to developing one’s talent for third-level performances.
This explanation of cultural production at the Chinese Folklore Villages fits entirely into the mode of intentional tradition. Notice what is missing; there is no call for the preservation of a borrowed traditional practice, no careful reproduction of an authorized performance, no link back to any actual practice from the original homeland. Instead, the resulting performance gains its effect through the improvements made using “professional modifications” to the underlying “primitive” level.
At the end of each performance in the parks, the audience is invited to join into a dance, or simply to touch the performers and pose for photographs. The performance has achieved the threshold of its audience’s sense of authentic experience, and then invites the audience to physically share this experience with the performers. This sharing resembles that moment of cultural contact that ethnologists experience when they arrive in the field. Visitors are encouraged to encounter other ethnic cultural groups as individuals, to touch them and acquire a feeling of cultural understanding.
At Huis ten Bosch, the sense of contact is created by simply arriving at the park. Checking into the Hotel Europa (or one of the other hotels) is physically like stepping into Europe (except that the staff speaks Japanese). The rooms are European in scale, far larger than most Japanese hotel rooms. Then a stroll out into the streets, over bricks imported from Holland, reinforces the feeling of being outside of Japan.
One of the few Dutch employees of Huis ten Bosch was genuinely impressed by the quality of the simulation that the manufactured cityscape offered to its visitors. “All this place lacks are drugs and hookers” he remarked with a combination of humor and respect. This comment actually touches on the main problematic for Huis ten Bosch: how to create a Dutch destination experience without experiencing Dutchpeople. There are no crowds of imported Hollanders adding human color to the shops and the streets, and only a few random European-looking people to garnish the architectural ambiance. The Australian water-ski team is notably blonde and young and adds a splash of excitement to the brick-lined canals. In 2002, the summer nights were enlivened by imported Cuban band. A small group of Dutch college students pursue their Japanese studies at an exchange program, but are not conspicuous to other visitors (and, one would suspect might be disappointed to have arrived to study in Japan only to be located in this consciously non-Japanese locale). The human interaction with the park’s staff is no different than what one might find in other Japanese internal tourist destinations, such as the hot springs at Noboribetsu. Here it is the architecture alone that serves to displace the visitor, and by doing this, offer them an experience of being somewhere else.
ASIDE: The author went night fishing on the canals of Huis Ten Bosch with members of the Australian waterski team: MIDNIGHT BASS FISHING
The visitor from Japan is surrounded by city marked by a blend of a familiar social manners and exotic settings. The visitor from outside Japan, particularly one from Europe, would face the opposite markers, as if wandering through a familiar city that has been somehow occupied by an army of strangers. The Japanese visitor (the park’s main customer) is freed to experience the location without the social hesitation (and even trepidation) that the same tourist might feel on the streets of a European city—in Europe, that is—a mood that has been consciously constructed by the management as the basis for the destination’s appeal.
The intended appeal of the site is rather straightforward: the Tokyoite can visit “Europe” for the weekend or longer after a short domestic flight with no jet lag and no other cultural preparations. The promise of “Europe” can, in this case, be legitimated by the faithfulness of the simulation. The destination is designed to saturate the visitor’s time for a weekend holiday visit. Many visitors, we were told, rarely leave the expansive hotels, where outside the windows is a cityscape constructed brick-by-brick on a European plan.
Earlier versions of ethnic cultural display at world’s fairs and museums involved the recreation of village life as this was (presumably) lived. This would include the display of back-region activities. Facilities for cooking, sleeping, daily chores, and everyday activities were on display. As the guidebook for the Java Village at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago describes: “This village gives an exact reproduction of a village as found in the Preanger Regencies, the western part of the Island. There are one hundred and twenty-five natives, among which thirty-four are women; they show the life and industries of the common people in Java. These temporary, “living” exhibits were complemented in tableaus of the everyday life of tribal groups in natural history museums.
This practice has only recently been changed in major museums from the 1970s to the present. New exhibitions focus on the articles of practice, and avoid the staged tableaus of “real life.” This new form of display was pioneered by the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka, Japan [http://www.minpaku.ac.jp/] and was seen most recently by the newly opened (2004) National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C. [http://www.nmai.si.edu/].
The goal of the living exhibits was to represent what Malinowski once called the “context of situation” of the daily lives of the people represented in the display. The people on display were instructed to act “normally” as though they were back in their home villages. They were encouraged to cook and eat, sleep and converse, play with their children, etc., as they would have back in their village. They would also make craft objects to sell to visitors. Nudity, as this was a feature of their everyday life, was transported as a feature of the “authentic” display.
At the 1939 New York World’s Fair, performers acting the roles of classical European painters would paint live nudes (always women) lounging on sofas in full view of the audience, establishing the frame of “art” as another frame that allowed nudity.
The hallmark of ethnic cultural display at world’s fair exhibits was the display of back-region behaviors—peeks into the real lives of other people. Historical parks, heritage sites, and then cultural theme parks, such as the Polynesian Culture Center in Hawaii, relied on their displays of back region activities to legitimate the notion that the “village” represented an authentic place, moved, but unchanged from its “roots”. Over the past two decades, this situation has changed considerably. Two reasons may explain this change. Firstly, back regions are very difficult to stage, and vulnerable to doubts an suspicions by the audience. Secondly, amusement theme parks (e.g. Disneyland) that do not stage back regions have been very successful and cultural theme parks have attempted to copy this success.
Dean MacCannell argued that the “back-region” of tourist destinations is also “staged,” and therefore not a real “back-region” in Goffman’s (1959, 128) terms.MacCannell asserted that, “a mere experience may be mystified, but a touristic experience is always mystified. The lie contained in the touristic experience, moreover, presents itself as a truthful revelation…. The idea here is that a false back is more insidious and dangerous than a false front… (1976, 102)”. MacCannell’s claim is that the display of a back region is structurally problematic for the site. It cannot easily be accepted (by the audience) as a real back region. And once the audience feels the back region is a lie, then the front region displays become vulnerable and the entire operation loses its legitimacy.
The same holds for the new “reality television” programs. These programs are vulnerable to suspicions that their “unscripted” dramas have been prearranged.
Conversely, Disney-style theme parks attempt to present a seamless front region display. Any preparation for a performance is done outside of the view of the consumer. Walls and plantings keep the outside neighborhood from being visible within the park. The daily grand parade simply appears from somewhere, runs its course and then disappears. Even the trash barrels are emptied through an underground system. The performers are “on stage” any time they are in the park. There are no “back-stage” tours allowed of Disney parks.
The parks under study in China and Japan represent new venues built in the past twenty years. These parks have abandoned an attempt to portray the back region, and focus on performances in a staged front region. The result is an experience of ethnic cultural display that is constructed more like a “land” in Disneyland, and less like a “village” from somewhere. In the Happy Valley theme park in Shenzhen, a Western-land townscape offers shows of gunplay and heroics by a cast of costumed cowboys (played by Russian actors from an international theatrical company, using a pre-recorded English voiceover) while across the park in an enchanted valley scene with a waterfall, ethnic minority actors dance and sing. At the end of each performance (cowboy or minority) the audience is encouraged to touch the actors and smile at the camera.
In the Wa village in Kunming, the female dancers backstage prepared for their dance by rolling up their blue jeans beneath their ethnic skirts so that their calves were bare. The skirts were “real,” but so were the jeans, and both were emblems of other places; the skirts of the village somewhere in Southwestern Yunnan and the jeans of the emerging cosmopolitan cultural influence in Kunming. The stage setting was made to recall the village not the global metropole, and so the jeans were hidden away (but not removed).The dances were from festivals and from romanticized courtship, and the audience was invited to join in on a circle dance at the end of the performance.
Intentional culture succeeds by avoiding displays of the everyday life of the “villagers”. This is a lesson that Disney learned early on, and that other theme parks have copied. At Parque España, the daily parade bursts from behind a set of gates, tours the grounds and returns to their hidden back stage. By creating and displaying only performances that can be accepted on their aesthetic merits, intentional cultural producers avoid the trap of attempting to create an authentic back region.
The back region is left back in the home village, and, of course, out in the dormitories where the cast members live. At Huis ten Bosch, the Australian water skiing team, housed in nearby dormitories for months, decided as a group to break the rules that the Japanese dormitory managers had set down for dormitory life; they set their own rules for visitations between the sexes, alcohol in the rooms, smoking, and music. They recreated the “back region” they would have experienced in Australia.
Over at Huis ten Bosch, the visitors get to stay overnight in the park, although the park concessions are mostly closed by 8 pm. The hotels then become the main source of evening entertainment. The visible confidence and ease that the park visitors display in their consumption of the front region Dutch cityscape and its commodities (there are many shopping and dining opportunities) reminds the observer that this place is also a fully managed theme park, and not an actual city. Just like Disneyland, Huis Ten Bosch sequesters away many aspects of mundane city life (not just Amsterdam’s famous vices). Poverty, crime, garbage, factories, illness, and death are not a part of this urban showcase. The visitors are not just travelers who have arrived to complete some work (unless they came to get married, and there are more than 700 weddings a year), they are here simply to be here, and to escape from their actual city back home.
Intentional Tradition as the future of cultural production
Huis ten Bosch was built as a model for future Japanese cities, with new technologies for sustainable development and a plan for 150,000 citizens (the park wall would be torn down, and the city would become an actual town). The juxtaposition of city center and theme park would compel the citizens to enjoy their urban lifestyle in a manner not possible in the overly crowded streets of Tokyo or Osaka. The intentions of the government (central and provincial) and the company were realized at a grand scale and enormous cost. However, the actual combination of city and theme park in Kyushu is not Huis ten Bosch, but rather the Jerde Group’s “Canal City” development in Hakata. This project rebuilds the city as a themed environment offering “non-daily events in a metropolitan environment” in the “largest privately developed project in Japan’s history” (source:http://www.jerde.com/go/place/canalcity).
The production of “constructed culture” as a feature of the urban landscape accelerates the consumption of such artifacts in everyday life, and prepares residents to consume similar artifacts in tourist destinations. The dream of living in a theme park is realized through intentional tradition as a model for urban planning.
Intentional traditions are not limited to theme parks and cities (such as Las Vegas) that are rebuilt as theme parks, but can be seen as the future of traditional (or post-traditional) culture. The act of producing intentional tradition represents a mode of “detraditionalization” in Giddens’ perspective: “A detraditionalizing social order is one in which the population becomes more active and reflexive, although the meaning of ‘reflexive’ should be properly understood. Where the past has lost its hold, or becomes one ‘reason’ among others for doing what one does, pre-existing habits are only a limited guide to action; while the future, open to numerous ‘scenarios’, becomes of compelling interest (Giddens, 1994, 92-93).” Theme parks compete with each other and with other types of destination for scarce tourist cash flows. The ability of cultural theme parks to innovate traditions—to attempt to manage their future—is crucial to their competitive position. So too, the workers in these theme parks use intentional traditions to innovate their own ethnic markers and construct cultural practices that offer them a future in the tourism industry: the world’s largest industry. And these ethnic markers and cultural practices are highly competitive as valued tokens in the economy and society of ethnic minority locales around China. In Japan, foreign-themed parks reinforce the islanders’ sense of belonging to the wider world. These offer local experiences of far-away traditions, experiences that are added to their visitors’ reflexive construction of their sense of self and national identity.
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