Asia, Travel

Touring South-West China with Davide Melia

This week I’d like to introduce you to Davide Melia, creator of ‘South West China with Davide Melia’ on Patreon. Davide lives in the Dehong Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture in south-west Yunnan and for several months his site has provided subscribers with an online portal to this special place.

Davide’s photographs, videos and stories illuminate daily life in this area. At a time when travel has been severely curtailed, these posts have provided a welcome—even therapeutic–escape. Whenever the stultifying sameness of the living room started getting to me, I knew I was only a few clicks away from Yunnan’s delicious food, spectacular landscapes and fascinating history. It’s been a bit like having a personal tour guide without having to go anywhere or to learn the language(s).

Davide was kind enough to agree to an interview talking about his life and the region. If you find this interview interesting, please consider subscribing and supporting his work.

1. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your life before arriving in China?

Of course! Well, I was born in Perth, Western Australia at the end of 1982, and my parents are migrants from Italy who arrived in Australia in the 1970s.

Growing up, I lived in Huntingdale, an outer suburb about 1 hour’s drive from the centre of Perth city. I went through 12 years of Catholic primary and secondary school, then attended the University of Western Australia where I did a double major in English and History and then Honours in English. After that, I spent 6 years post-uni working as a doorman at different places, mainly big nightclubs and pubs, around Perth.

I was very involved in the punk scene in Perth. I was not a musician, though many of my friends were. At one point I worked as the head doorman of the Hyde Park Hotel, in many ways the home of punk in Perth, before it was taken over by a large conglomerate and turned into a cookie-cutter, sanitised suburban pub.

I’ve also been involved with anti-racist activism in Perth since I was a teenager. Why anti-racist activism? Well, Huntingdale (and the neighbouring suburbs, Thornlie and Maddington and Gosnells) have always had large populations of Indigenous Australian peoples, and of people from different parts of the world, but Gosnells was also the home of Jack van Tongeren, the leader of the Australian neo-Nazi group the Australian Nationalist Movement, and it was quite a racist place in some parts.

When I was very young, the ANM were very active in posting neo-Nazi propaganda, putting neo-Nazi graffiti everywhere, and making attacks on various people and their homes and businesses. They were all jailed when I was very young, but in the early 2000’s, they made a comeback, and started getting serious about doing the same kind of shit they did back in the late 80’s.

Jack van Tongeren with suggestive hairstyle and moustache

So, remembering them from when I was young, I was very active in disrupting their plans and goals, collecting information about who they were and what they were doing, and generally interfering with what they wanted to do. Thankfully, that time around, their group was broken up without them doing any serious harm to anyone – and van Tongeren was exiled out of the state (and is very old by now), so a third coming of the ANM has not and is not going to happen.

2. Where are you now and how did you get there?
I live in Mangshi, which is the capital city of Dehong Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture, which is located in south-west Yunnan, which is located in south-west China, right on the northern border of Myanmar.After I finished working as a doorman at the end of 2009, I went back to university to do my graduate diploma (I’d previously completed a BA in English and History, with Honours in English), and while I was there, I met a visiting scholar from China. We wrote a book together, and I mentioned to her that I knew very little about China, and that I would be interested in working there for a year or so.

Image from here

So she helped me find a job at a private English training school. That job lasted for 6 months until my boss tried to cheat me out of wages and I left after an extremely acrimonious argument which culminated in him throwing a chair at me. When I came back, in 2013, I went to work at the Dehong Teacher’s College. That job was great. It lasted for 3 years, but then I went back home because my grandfather was dying. And a good job I did – he passed away a week after I got back.

At the end of February, I am going back to work at the Dehong Teacher’s College.

3. How does your region relate to the rest of China? How is it different?
Where I live is right on the border with northern Myanmar.

Well, Mangshi city itself is a couple hundred kilometres away. It would be much less, except that this whole part of Yunnan consists of mountains, hills, rainforests and valleys. However, Ruili, which is like the commercial centre of Dehong, is literally on the border – the border crossing to Shan State in northern Myanmar is in Ruili itself. In fact, Ruili is a two-part city – the side on the Myanmar side of the border is called Muse, and it is a single city, more or less, with a national border going through it.

Riuli, on the border with Myanmar

So, as you can imagine, the geography and climate is very similar, in fact the same, as that in northern Myanmar. I’ve already mentioned the geography, but the climate is very sub-tropical, with two distinct seasons – cold and dry in the winter and autumn, and warm and very (very!) rainy in the spring and summer.

There’s also similarities in the people who live here. For one thing, 75% or so of the construction and hospitality sectors in Dehong is staffed by people from the Myanmar side of the border, and also, the same ethnic groups tend to live on both sides of the border. They might have different names in Myanmar – for example, Dai people are called Shan, and Jingpo people are called Kachin – but they are the same peoples.

There are also a lot of similarities in the foods that are eaten, the music that people like, and many other cultural aspects.

But as for similarities with the rest of China … well, it is very much still China, even if it has a very different culture as a result of being an ‘ethnic autonomous prefecture’ with a very varied population.

Shan State is largely neglected by the Myanmar government, given that the Myanmar government is dominated by Bamar people who don’t care very much for the ‘hill tribes’ living in the ‘ethnic areas’ on the border. So it’s very under-developed. It suffers from a gross lack of government investment and government funding. So even though the people are hard-working and do the best with what they have, Shan State is noticeably more run-down and under-developed than Dehong. You can see this clearly just by going to Ruili and comparing the Myanmar side of the border to the China side.

Dehong is a very low GDP-per-capita area in a very low GDP-per-capita province of China – Yunnan is the second-lowest GDP-per-capita area of China. In spite of this – or more accurately, because of this – it has received massive amounts of government investment over the last 10 or 15 years, and has developed very much in that time. Roads that were once treacherous and narrow have been replaced by multi-lane expressways leading to every other part of Yunnan and China, and even out of the country.

Villages and towns have received massive amounts of investment, which has meant that every aspect of life in them has improved. This is something which Dehong has in common with very many other, similar, areas all across China, and particularly in northern and western China.All of this sounds a lot like a PR job, or the outright P-word – but it is nothing more or less than the god’s honest truth. That’s one big issue with Western coverage of China – if it’s not outright negative, or at least laced with negativity, it’s largely regarded as propaganda. The well has been poisoned so thoroughly that just trying to give an accurate view of how things are here is somehow suspect.


4. You often mention your wife, Weina. Can you tell us a little bit about her background, how you met and her interests? What was the procedure in terms of your residency there?

Well, Weina is from Shandong province way on the other side of China. She did her degrees at universities in Kunming, which is the capital city of Yunnan, and after she was done, she got a job here at the teacher’s college, where she has worked ever since.

Weina’s very much involved in her work, and very serious and professional on that. Most Chinese academics and teachers are like this, especially those who work in marginal areas like this. But she also very much likes travelling, reading for pleasure, learning about different things, listening to music, watching television, and other things besides. In this sense, and many others besides, we’re pretty well matched with each other.

Weina and Davide

We worked at the same college for three years, from 2013-2016, but we didn’t meet during my time at the college. Well, we met a few days before I went back home, but then I went home and we didn’t talk again until the latter third of 2017, when we were introduced to each other by a colleague from the college. We talked a lot, got along very well, went on a holiday together at the beginning of 2018, and from there decided that we’d both like to stay together from that time on.

So at that point, we started preparing for me to come back to Mangshi. It wasn’t too difficult because I already had a passport and had a job lined up, so I went through the usual process involved in obtaining a work visa for China. That’s the first step. Once I had been issued a work visa, I flew to China, and from there, I obtained my residency permit, and I’ve been living here ever since.

5. How do locals react to your being a foreigner?

It varies quite a lot.

Children range from horror at my ogre-like presence, to treating me like a celebrity. I don’t mind either – it’s quite funny. Children are children, and their reactions have more to do with how they feel at a given moment than anything else.The reaction of adults also varies quite a lot, but isn’t so extreme. Dehong is already quite a multi-ethnic region – it has many different local ethnic groups, plus lots of people from Myanmar and other nearby countries. But not too many ‘Westerners’.

Kids from Davide’s post “Pictures from a Xinjiang Primary School, Kashgar, Xinjiang”.

So, the reaction of adults varies from friendliness, to utter indifference. Really old people, who associate Westerners with the Americans and others who were here during the war, are uniformly friendly. People who are a little older than that, who grew up during the Cultural Revolution and the time in China’s history when foreigners never came here, are a bit more ambiguous … some are friendly, some are unfriendly, and some are obviously wondering what the hell I am doing here. Mind you, they wouldn’t have met a ‘foreigner’ who wasn’t from Myanmar until quite recently. At the earliest, they would have met foreigners maybe twenty years ago. So these kinds of reactions are understandable.

But I have never come across anyone who was openly rude to me, or hostile, or anything like that. The local people are wonderful and tolerant.

Well, once I was threatened with a big knife for taking photos of people who really, really didn’t want to be photographed, but that was at the jade market in Ruili, the border city with Myanmar. And even at that, he just brandished his knife at me and made me understand that I should stop taking photos, which I immediately did.

Jade market in Riuli

Another time, some dudes were sizing me up like a particularly juicy pork-chop – and not in a friendly way – but I’d stumbled into illegal stuff going on, and had a camera in my hand. On both occasions, even though there was an implicit or explicit threat, I was still shown a large amount of forbearance and tolerance, for which I can only be grateful. Neither of those events were because of my being a foreigner, though – my own ignorance caused them.

6. From your posts, I’ve learned that there are several different ethnic groups who live in the region and who maintain a sense of their distinct identity, for example the Dai,  De’ang and Jingpo. Can you talk about some of these minority groups –language and dialect, for example, and their relationship with the Han majority?

Dehong is a Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture, after the two largest ‘ethnic minority’ groups who live here. However, Dehong is home to at least five different ethnicities besides the Han, Hui, Bamar, and others who live here – the Dehong Dai, Jingpo, De’ang, Lisu, and Achang.

First, there’s the De’ang people. As far as anyone knows, they’re actually the indigenous people of Dehong, and were living here when the Dai people arrived from further north-east over a thousand years ago.

De’ang language is part of the Austroasiatic language family, and is most closely related to certain other languages spoken in India, Bangladesh, and other areas around south-east Asia. They were pre-literate, and now use Dai script – they were introduced to it along with Buddhism by the Dai people when they arrived here – but have a long and rich history and culture.

De’ang people picking tea [Photo/Xinhua] china daily newspaper]

They were and are an agricultural people best known for tea planting- in fact, they may well have introduced tea to the Han people and other peoples of China. Tea is, after all, indigenous to this part of the world, and spread over the world from here. They believe that they are descended from primordial tea plants in an earlier era of the world (I can only compare this era to the Dreamtime, although this is an imperfect comparison to make)- and tea is an integral part of their culture, at every level.

Second, there’s the Dai people. The Dai people are from much further north-east in what is now China. They spread out over Yunnan, Myanmar (where they are called Shan), Thailand (where they are called Tai), and as far south as northern India, from the borderland of modern-day Guizhou, Guangxi, and Hunan provinces, although their ultimate origin is thought to be even further north-west still.

Over the centuries and millennia, they followed the rivers and mountains and hills and valleys to the south and west, where they formed smaller groups in suitable locations for rice-farming, which grew over time into powerful independent kingdoms and principalities. The modern-day Thai people, for example, are related to the various Dai/Tai/Shan peoples – Thai language is about 50% cognate with Dehong Dai language, with many shared vocabulary items (such as numbers).

That bring us to their language. There are many different Dai languages, all of which are mutually intelligible, but which have different influences and vocabularies based on the influence of their neighbours in a given area. Dai languages are part of the same family as Burmese, Thai, Sinhalese, Balinese, Kannada, Tamil, and other ‘south-east Asian languages’. The Dai language spoken in Dehong is referred to as Dehong Dai (or Tai Le or Tai Nua), and has a vast amount of literature, both sacred and secular, written in it, as well as a rich spoken heritage.

Women of the Dai minority

If the De’ang are associated mainly with tea, the Dai are associated mainly with rice planting. The Dai people may have been among the first rice-planting cultures, who introduced the crop, and the best ways of planting it, to many other cultures and peoples. Rice farming has always been the basis of their way of life, their prosperity, and their principalities and kingdoms which have been very powerful and influential in the past. Even today, Dai people are the main basis of the agricultural wealth of Dehong, which is mainly an agricultural area.

Then, there’s the Jingpo and Lisu, who I will deal with together, since much of what is true for the Jingpo is also true for the Lisu. The Jingpo and Lisu are actually two parts of what is called the ‘Jinghpaw Wunpong’, or ‘Jingpo Confederacy’ – a confederation of five different peoples. Or six or seven – it depends who you ask. However, only two of those peoples, the Jingpo and Lisu, live on this side of the China/Myanmar border.

Jingpo woman dancing, photo courtesy of Davide Melia. He has a fascinating explanation for the costume in the February 2021 post “The Dragon Woman, Ja Nang, the progenitor of Jingpo women”

The peoples of the Jinghpaw Wunpong originate from much further north, in central Asia, from a land which they call Ka-ang Shingra. From there, they slowly and gradually moved south – spending a lot of time in different areas along the way, such as Mongolia, modern-day Sichuan province, and many others besides – until they arrived in this part of the world about 500 years ago.

The Jingpo speak a number of languages but here in Dehong, they speak two – Jingpo and Zaiwa. Both of these are Sino-Tibetan languages, although part of a rather rarified branch; many of their closest relatives are in the mainly-extinct Luish/Asakian language group.

Jingpo/Kachin people in this part of the world have been best known for living in the hills and mountains, where they have practiced various forms of agriculture such as swidden farming and raising cattle and other suitable livestock. Jingpo areas have a lot of mineral wealth – most famously, jade and emeralds – and the Jingpo people were well-known as miners.

Unlike the Dai, who were able to maintain large standing armies thanks to their style of agriculture, Jingpo people have long practiced a form of warfare which we might compare most accurately to guerrilla warfare, using smaller units and depending on precise manouvres and hit-and-run attacks. Most recently, they were instrumental in pushing the Japanese out of northern Burma and Yunnan in World War 2. They were organized and trained and armed by the British – although, by all accounts, they didn’t need that much training from the British in guerrilla fighting!

Unlike many other peoples in this part of the world, they are mainly Christians, and were converted by the China Inland Missions in the late 19th Century – although they also retain ideas and cultural elements from their previous animist beliefs.

And then there’s the Achang people. They are the least-known of the ‘ethnic minority’ groups of Dehong, among the people of Dehong themselves, which is a shame because they basically all live here. Their earliest recorded origins were in the region bordering modern-day Sichuan and Gansu provinces. About 2,000 years ago, they travelled to Dehong when their home region was placed under the control of a Han governor at the beginning of the Ming dynasty. At one time, they were tributaries to the Nanzhao and Dali Kingdoms based in Dali, and are well-known for rice farming.

Achang man

Like the De’ang people, the Achang have also been influenced quite a lot by the Dehong Dai. Achang people commonly speak their own language, which is related to Burmese and Arakanese and Zaiwa, but have also spoken Dehong Dai and Mandarin for trading purposes for hundreds of years.

Overall, though, the Achang are very little known – not a lot of work has been done on their history and culture, and even less has been published in the English language.

How do all of these ethnic groups relate to the Han? And how have they related to the Han in the past? Well, for a long time, the Han were not very well established here in south-west Yunnan. There has been a significant Han/Hui presence in Baoshan prefecture to the north-west for about 500 years, but for the most part, the region has been dominated by the various Dai peoples and by a wide variety of different ethnic groups depending on the locality. Various local kingdoms and principalities paid tribute to the Imperial court under the tusi system, but there weren’t really significant populations of Han people in this part of Yunnan for a long time. So, the story of inter-ethnic-group relations here has more to do with how the different non-Han ethnic groups have related to each other. That’s a question which could fill entire volumes of books!

7. What are the aspects you like best about living in Mangshi? What are some of the more challenging things?

Mangshi has a number of features which make it very attractive to live in.

First of all, as you’ll know from my photos and videos, it’s absolutely gorgeous. Dehong is about 1,000 metres above sea level, and it’s made up of 80% rainforest/mountain/hills, 15% rural land, and it’s only about 5% urbanised. It’s basically a giant ‘carbon sink’. So the environment is really good, the air and water are clean, and it has a lot of bio-diversity – even by the standards of Yunnan province, where much of China’s bio-diversity is to be found.

Mangshi River, flowing through a lush green landscape

Second, it has always been, and still is, multicultural and multiethnic. So, not only are there all kinds of different peoples and cultures here, tolerance and acceptances have long been ways of life here. With so many different peoples from so many different places living here, it had to be that way, otherwise society would have broken down a long time ago. Third – the necessities of life are very cheap here. Because it’s a low GDP-per-capita area, wages are quite low. And 2020 was very difficult – I myself was below the poverty level of income, even for here in China, for much of it. And yet, we still got along pretty well. Rent is relatively cheap, transportation is cheap, and food is very cheap indeed, as well as being good-quality.

One thing that is challenging about Dehong is that it is an isolated area. It’s very far from my home in Australia, and from Weina’s home in eastern China. So it’s difficult to see our families more than once a year or so – and lately, what with the virus, it’s been even longer in-between visits.

Another thing is that there are so many different peoples, and so many different cultures, and my eyes are bigger than my stomach. As much as I try, I can’t learn as much as I would like about everyone – so my knowledge is mainly limited to the Dehong Dai and Jingpo people, with a decent amount about De’ang people. So I continually feel like there’s stuff I don’t understand, or that I’m not getting.

8. I particularly like your photographic portraits and the stories you extract from people about their lives. You seem to have a knack for putting your subjects at their ease. Do you have a favorite portrait and accompanying story?

Well, that starts with choosing suitable people to photograph. Some people just don’t want to be photographed, and even asking them is likely to accomplish nothing but aggravating them. If you can clearly see that people look unhappy, or unfriendly, or are doing something that they wouldn’t like others to see – they’re probably not looking to be photographed.

Photographs of wedding guests from the January 2021 post “The wasteland/agricultural land near the new development, Mangshi, Dehong, Yunnan.”

I err on the side of caution on this one – as I said, I’ve been threatened with a big knife once, and had a group of guys out in the countryside regarding me in a very unfriendly fashion – and it would accomplish nothing for me to get tied up in anything like that here. I spent a lot of time in my twenties having people trying to stick me with knives, broken bottles, and so on, as part of my work, but it’s 10, 15 years on from that time in my life, and there is no possible way I could benefit from anything like that now.

From there, if it’s at all possible, I ask permission. It’s not difficult to ask people if they would like to be photographed, and it’s just good manners. It ensures that they’re going to be happy to be photographed, and if they’re happy, they’ll be more relaxed and the photo will turn out better. Sometimes they’d like to take a photo with me, or of me, as well!

I like to photograph people doing everyday things. People pose for photos in much the same way wherever you are in China, or in the world – but their normal body language is very different in different parts, and that difference is part of what makes photographing people so interesting.

I have a lot of favourite portraits, but if I was being prompted to pick one, I’d probably pick one of the pictures I took of an elderly Han woman, who had been foot-bound in her early days, sitting in her grand-daughter’s shop.

A grandmother with bound feet, from Davide’s December 2020 post “Intergenerational Change in rural China, Mangshi, Dehong, China”

Because it’s so isolated and out on the periphery of China, foot-binding actually kept on going here into the 1950s. This lady was one of the very last women who were foot-bound in China, maybe. This is a cultural practice that had been done in China for over 1,000 years, and it only stopped dead in the 1950s, when the Communist government made sustained efforts to stop it, and to remove it from the culture altogether.

But her own daughter didn’t have to go through that, and neither did her granddaughter. She was confined to her family’s home, but now, two generations on, her grand-daughter has her own business, owns the building that her business is in, and can do whatever she wants to do with her life … and didn’t have to go through her whole life functionally crippled.
And even though she has been basically crippled for her whole life, she’s pretty happy in her old age, because her daughter and grand-daughter never had to go through that.

9. What would you most like people to take away from ‘South-West China with Davide Melia’?

There’s been an absolutely massive, sustained, propaganda campaign against China, and against the peoples of China, for a long time now – but it’s really spiralled out of control since 2014, when Xi Jinping came to power. And I feel that nearly all of it is being done in bad faith, because many countries see China’s development and growth as an existential threat.

But the truth is, China has gone through many positive changes in that time. Hundreds of millions of people have been raised out of the most awful poverty imaginable. The country is developing at an absolutely unprecedented rate. Even here, in one of the lowest GDP areas in the entire country, this process is going on. Things are getting better for the majority of people in China.

And the people of China are not a mass of evil-doers and brainwashed drones. They are some of the kindest, most friendly, most intellectually curious, and dedicated and committed people I’ve had the pleasure to live amongst.

If people are going to take just two overarching ideas away from my photos and videos, that would be it, I think.

From the October 2020 post “A Red De’ang lady at the mobile phone shop, Mangshi, Dehong, Yunnan”

If you enjoyed this article and would like to learn more about the region, please consider subscribing to Davide’s Patreon page. A very low price gives you access to all previous posts. Plus, Davide is very responsive to feedback and willing to create posts according to subscriber questions and interests.