Yangshou, China is a somewhat gritty city that has taken some pretty strong measures to hide the grit and attract tourist dollars. On my first excursion from my mountaintop hotel down into the city I zigged and zagged past smelly fish stalls and ugly utilitarian shops selling things like plastic mops and buckets. Before too long I happened upon West Street, a newly developed pair of pedestrian avenues lined with gift shops, restaurants, and familiar sights such as Starbucks and Burger King. The area was of course a hotspot for touts touting other (mostly invented) area attractions, and one that you couldn’t miss was the Impression Liu Sanjie Water and Light Show, an invented attraction if there ever was one.
I say it “couldn’t be missed” because there was a massive amount of advertising for it, not because it was a show that you really had to see, though several people claimed the latter in my general direction. As I sat in a comfy booth munching a personal pizza and sipping on good German draught beer I hummed and hawed about whether or not to check it out. It seemed to me like it would be pretty lame and it was quite expensive – I think the tickets might have been $40 or $50 each or something ridiculous like that – but in the end I decided to err on the side of caution; if you don’t go, you won’t know, and there was a chance – however slim – that the Impression Water and Light Show would be an unforgettable, mind-bending experience.
And on November 2nd, 2017 I discovered that it was, in a way.
Following up a day-trip bamboo rafting around Xing Ping I raced back to my hotel just in time to meet my pre-arranged ride (and ticket connection) to the show. Down the mountain we went and soon her car deposited me just outside of the outdoor venue. I was immediately shocked at how many people were coursing through the turnstiles.
I got my tickets (in a confusing and roundabout way) and was pointed towards a security line that was labelled in English: Explosion Prevention Line. The crowd was being ushered into little holding areas before being corralled through the metal detectors. I remember being amazed at the orderliness of the Chinese; everyone lined up in the most perfect, military-like lines within the holding pens without being told to do so. It was quite a sight.
When I found my seat I was further astounded. I had expected a thousand, maybe fifteen hundred people, but there were at least 6,000 people there, easy. I guess it made sense given that the show had a cast of six hundred performers. I was also astounded by the setting. The bleachers faced the most picture-perfect cove you could possibly imagine, which was ringed by massive, towering mountains that rose up out of the water like fingers, all of them lit up like a classic Chinese rice-paper ink painting.
The show itself was broken up into seven chapters that chronicled the history of China, performed by an enormous cast who used the water as their stage. There was music too, I suppose attributed to Liu Sanjie, a 1,000-year-old folk singing legend. In addition to the illuminated mountains there was fire, spotlights, brightly lit floats, countless boats, and electrified costumes (literally). Of course it was all presented in Chinese and hence impossible for me to follow, and while the show started well enough – with two hundred kids waving torches from the front of a hundred floating rafts, each of which sported flaming bonfires on their bows – it was really quite lame overall. Considering each show brings in a quarter of a million dollars in ticket sales (by my estimation) and they present two shows a night, you’d think the choreography would be a bit tighter.
But the reason this show will forever stand out in my memory is the crowd. Never in my life have I seen a more disrespectful group. Not a word of a lie, there were at least a thousand loud, nonstop conversations going on in the stands all around me the whole time – if anyone was whispering I sure didn’t hear it – so much so that I turned around and yelled to everybody in particular, “It’s absolutely absurd how many people are just talking and talking and talking!” whilst widely gesturing with my arms in an effort to simultaneously translate my sentiment.
But that wasn’t the only thing. Aside from all the chatter and the absolutely insane amount of cellphoning going on, with fifteen minutes left in the show hundreds upon hundreds of people got up to leave. Taking this as a cue, moments later entire sections stood up en masse to leave as well. Of course this was exactly at a moment when dozens of actors were coursing through the stands, leaving the exits blocked. So all the early-departers just stood in the aisles, not caring a bit about the few thousand of us left trying to watch the show. And of course the leavers were talking louder than ever, no doubt about how great the show they were trying to leave was. For them the night was over and to hell with anyone else.
And it must happen all the time, because the house lights went up when there was still a few minutes left in the performance. I was astounded…was the show over or not?
I’ve never seen anything like it, before or since. Honestly, it was an embarrassment for the country. If the Chinese always treat their own artists and their fellow citizens with such a level of blatant disrespect I don’t want any part of it.
I wanted to punch them all in the face.
Somehow, I punched no one. Sometimes I can be a good little tourist.
Outside I found my taxi right where she said she’d be and in no time at all I was back in my room resting up for what was looking like an even bigger day to come, albeit one that was devoid of any ticketed shows or concerts. After what I saw at the Impression Water and Light Show I was done with those.