“Welcome to Authentic China”
What kind of holidaymaker are you? The type that looks for the first place to sell you a full English breakfast or the type that cringes when you hear another English accent in the place, usually over-emphasising at a sceptical waiter. If you tend towards the latter then you might have already heard of sustainable tourism, heck, even booked a trip wanting to fully embrace the authenticity of a place rather than its tourist-stuffed facade.
Amy Ng’s Shangri-La questions the very notion of whether its possible though – whether a form of pure cultural tourism can exist or if it is all a sham, something cooked up to relieve all-too-easily proffered wallets and purses. Until 2001, the Chinese Himalayan city of Shangri-La was known as Zhongdian, its renaming aimed to capitalise on the vogue for all things Tibetan, and Ng asks at what cost such decisions are made.
The prism for her often witty play is would-be photographer Bunny, a member of the Naxi minority ethnic group whose customs and ceremonies are buried deep in centuries-long tradition and secrecy. She’s making a living as a tour guide and when her local knowledge is called upon to give a private tour to a wealthy potential benefactor, she’s faced with the dilemma of what she’s prepared to sacrifice in the name of her individuality versus her people’s, something she has had to consider before.
Shangri-La thus plays out in two timeframes and this is something Charlotte Westenra’s production could make a little smoother. Julia Sandford’s Bunny negotiates the back-and-forth well though, caught between newly-introduced ideas of what her life could be versus the reality of what she’ll have to do gain it, and Rosie Thomson is excellent as two different women who can facilitate that change for her, gaining several laughs in the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment with an iPhone.
There’s perhaps a little too much stuffed into the narrative for it to truly breathe. The complexities of Chinese authoritarian rule are only ever hinted at, the fascinating role of corruption glanced on briefly; fortunately, the focus on shady tourism sitting cheek by cheek with exploitation and poverty is fiercely examined, our own Western complicity left in no doubt whatsoever. There’s strong support from Andrew Koji’s Karma and Kevin Shen’s Nelson, two men with very different ideas on what’s acceptable and Ng pleasingly eschews giving us any easy answers.