food / travel

*Tourist Tax* To Enter Ancient River Town In China Sparks Outrage

Something special
Something special
Sun Le

-Essay-

BEIJING – On April 10, Fenghuang, a popular tourist town that is on the UNESCO World Heritage tentative list, started charging entry for visitors, triggering public outcry in China.

Fenghuang is located in Xiangxi Prefecture, in China’s central Hunan Province, which is home to the Miao and Tujia ethnic minorities.

Now, whoever wants to enter the town, whether visiting relatives, friends or for sightseeing, has to pay a "toll" for the privilege.

The new 148-Yuan ($24) entry ticket allows visitors to access the Fenghuang Ancient City, as well as the neighboring Shenfong Scenic Park and Nanhua Mountain.

This immediately sparked public uproar – with riot police being called in to quell protests by hundreds of local residents who believe the entry-fee will negatively impact tourism and trade.

As the three-day May Day public holiday approaches, Internet users have joined the protest, launching an online campaign to call for a boycott of the town and accusing Fenghuang authorities of “highway robbery.” Those who oppose the new toll question the legitimacy of such a move by local authorities.

Fenghuang is not just a scenic site. It is a city where indigenous ethnic minorities and migrants have lived and thrived in for centuries. Tourists come here because they want to see the well-maintained traditional stilt houses over the river. Local authorities saw a business opportunity and decided to cash in. But does it have the authority to do it? To turn this quaint tourist town into a “fortress?”

The role of a government is to provide public services. Its legitimacy is granted by the people. Whether it’s the natural landscape or the human and cultural heritage of this ancient city, they are all derived from the accumulation of nature and history.

If it has to belong to someone, then it is jointly owned by the people who were born here and have grown up here. It is these people’s ancestors who created the history of this town and tended to its environment. The local government is only authorized to administer the city on behalf of its constituents. Unfortunately, the reality is that Fenghuang authorities treat these people’s heritage as if it was their own private property. It has packaged their heritage and transferred it to a private tourism company in which it holds 49% of shares. In doing this they are eroding public tourism resources.

Unrestrained power

The Fenghuang case is just one in a number of cases where the government has extended its visible hand beyond its authority. Perhaps local governments view such issues as insignificant. But if all local authorities in China were to follow suit – just imagine how many historic and scenic sites would become “fortresses.”

It is worrying that the local government can be allowed to just take control of public property, extend its power unrestrainedly and nibble away at public resources that represent the livelihood of so many people. If the public allows such power to go unchecked, than it will put the entire society at risk of having a government with unlimited power, but with limited responsibility. This is called a dictatorship.

The wheels of history cannot go backwards. China today urgently needs to define the limits of public power and clarify what local governments are allowed to do or not to do. Power that doesn’t belong to the government needs to be handed back to the people. Otherwise, governments will just pursue their own interests in the name of the public good. Having unclear limits of power gives legitimacy to authorities when they seize public resources as their own and violate their constituents’ rights.

(photo: magicalworld)

What is comforting is that the Fenghuang case has shown that people won’t stand for the abuse of public power. And in fact, after the protests the entry-fee for students was lowered from 80 to 20 Yuan (50c to 12c) and was waived for visitors from nearby regions.

In the past other historic towns such as Zhouzhuang in Jiansu Province, Wuzhen and Xitang in Zhejiang Province, Hongcun in Anhui Province, have imposed entry-fees. Nevertheless, the silence of the local population doesn’t mean that it is ok. The fact that people weren’t paying attention in the past doesn’t mean that no one will be paying attention later. There is always a “last straw.”

What happened at Fenghuang makes us want to care more about our rights and interests. We have seen an awakening public that will no longer choose to be silent.

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Society

The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation

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Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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