Wu Meilun is an old lady in her seventies who has put on her posh Kam clothes to welcome us. Kam girls in the past would make their own costumes, and wear them on festival days to show off their skills to the mensfolk. Traditionally, Kam women would sit at their spinning wheels and spin into the night, with the old ladies retiring at around nine o’clock. The younger girls would then stick something called a “cat’s ear” onto their spinning wheel, so it suddenly started making a klickety-klack sound, advertising their presence to the local youths, who would pop over to chat them up, keep them company and “sing.” Spinning could then go on until the small hours, with occasional breaks for cups of tea, chat and “singing.”
“But that doesn’t go on any more,” sighs Meilun wistfully. Now everybody just vegs out in front of China’s Got Talent and looks at cat videos on their iPhones.
Meilun is here to show me how to make paper from citron bark, which she mashes up and mixes with natural gum, and spreads it out on frames to dry in the sun. I say citron bark, because that’s what the dictionary tells us it is, but the word in Chinese is goupi, which sadly also means dogfart. There is considerably merriment from the crew every time I get my tones wrong.
How long will it take to dry, I ask her.
Only two hours, she says.
We wait two hours. The paper is still wet. It turns out that the Kam of Dimen have as little appreciation of time as the Kam of Tang-an.
We can’t do any driving shots in the afternoon because Pan has taken the Buick into the hills to hunt wild boar. So instead we shoot a piece at the vending machines, in which I discuss the likelihood of me being suddenly overcome in the dead of night by the sudden desire for a toy sword, clockwork dinosaur or 50-pack of tampons, and rushing to the vending lobby to buy some.
“Let’s buy a plastic monkey!” I enthuse, feeding my five kuai into the machine to get myself a pointless monkey that lights up in the dark. Probably not a day we will win an award for.
Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. These events featured in Route Awakening S03E02 (2017).