WUZHEN, China – On a rainy afternoon, Liu Hongfei let himself fall into an empty stroller in Wuzhen, a picturesque town in eastern China.
He wore dark clothes and red sneakers, his face painted white, a kazoo perched in his mouth.
“Hello?” he squeaked, addressing the marching tourists. “Is anyone listening?”
People were hurrying at the sight of the mad, ghostly figure. But as Mr. Liu, an actor, continued his monologue on death, war and women, a crowd of spectators began to form.
Moments of theatrical absurdity are rare on the streets of China, where public performances are strictly regulated. So Mr. Liu’s monologue was a refreshing moment of authenticity here in Wuzhen, an ancient city known for its charming canals and traditional architecture.
Mr. Liu is a member of the Black Cat Theater Group, which traveled from Beijing for the fourth annual Wuzhen Theater Festival, which was held here in October. The group of young performers specializes in avant-garde theater.
When Stan Lai, a Taiwanese-American playwright and one of the founders of the theater festival, first visited Wuzhen, he said, it seemed like “a beautiful scene.” But he added: âIt was lacking in spirit. There was no soul.
Some critics say that Wuzhen feels sterile. Nevertheless, the city has become a very successful example of tourism development in China. Almost seven million tourists visit each year, which has been a huge economic boon for the city of about 50,000 residents.
âWe are like the engine of an airplane, generating business opportunities that help uplift the whole city,â said Chen Xianghong, president of Culture Wuzhen, which sponsors the theater festival.
But as the growing number of Chinese tourists become more savvy, the development of tourism is starting to take a different direction. And Wuzhen, whose claim to fame is the birthplace of 20th-century novelist Mao Dun, seeks to be at the forefront of this change.
âPeople don’t want to just take pictures and leave anymore,â said Chen, who is also the chairman of the Wuzhen Tourism Company, a public-private partnership that oversees the city’s development. “They want to stay in places longer and be immersed in the experience.”
He added: âWith Wuzhen, we built a nice shell. So now we’re trying to fill the shell with culture. “
Mr. Chen’s approach reflects a widespread understanding of the culture in China today. Here, officials and businessmen more often speak of culture as a commodity – culture with a capital C – rather than as something that grows organically.
To that end, Wuzhen – more than any of the other so-called water towns that dot the region – has carved a place for itself on the international cultural map with its annual theater festival. This year, the 10-day festival attracted more than 35,000 people.
In the spring, the city also opened the Wuzhen International Contemporary Art Exhibition, which featured a high-level international advisory board and showcased works by 40 major artists, including Damien Hirst, Ai Weiwei, and Zhang Dali.
There is also the Mu Xin Art Museum, which opened last year. It is dedicated to the work of artist and native of Wuzhen Mu Xin, who was imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution and later cleared.
Outside of culture and tourism, the city is perhaps best known for the Wuzhen World Internet Conference, a gathering of senior officials and executives from major Chinese and Western technology companies. (This year’s conference will take place November 16-18.)
In July, the Wuzhen Tourism Company struck a deal with Internet company Baidu to develop driverless car services, making Wuzhen one of the first places in China to test the technology.
âWuzhen has a kind of nourishing energy,â said Meng Jinghui, artistic director of this year’s theater festival. âIn terms of content and budget, they gave us complete freedom. It is very rare in China.
It helps, Meng said, that visitors to Wuzhen are limited to one of the two designated tourist areas, creating a kind of captive audience. Both tourist areas are managed by the Wuzhen Tourism Company, which charges around $ 15 for entry.
Inside, a thriving urban utopia. Housed in perfectly rustic traditional buildings, stores carefully organized by the tourism company guarantee a diverse offer of local specialties and specially designed products, such as green onion rolls and indigo-dyed textiles.
Over 200 workers keep the cobbled streets clean. There is no litter on the sidewalks, no laundry to dry. Just selfie-ready backdrops – flowing green canals, sloping tile roofs, stone bridges – at every turn.
Two decades ago, Wuzhen was one of many small towns in the country that were being hollowed out by urbanization. After a major fire devastated much of the city, Mr. Chen, originally from Wuzhen, saw an opportunity to rebuild it as a tourist destination.
There wasn’t much to work with. There were no postcard-worthy mountains or great rivers. But there were canals, built as part of the old Grand Canal system, and the city’s decaying traditional architecture. Starting with the eastern part of the city and later moving to the western part, workers restored the old buildings and in some cases rebuilt them entirely.
The residents were forced to move. The factories were closed. The power lines were buried underground. The canals have been cleaned. Parking lots, reception centers and hotels have been built.
It was a contentious process that entailed human costs. Liu Huigen, for his part, was forced to move twice to make room for development.
âOf course, some people were against it,â said Mr. Liu, 67, a second-generation barber. âBut they ended up coming back. At the end of the day, we all try to be good citizens.
Mr. Liu spoke about the interior of the small white-walled store where he keeps two rusty barber chairs on the main pedestrian street in the western scenic area of ââWuzhen. Mr. Liu worked on this street for 20 years, long before there were any tourists. It looks pretty much the same, he said, although it’s cleaner now and more marketed.
Due to the entrance fee to the tourist area, Mr. Liu said, he no longer saw some of his old customers. But, as is the case with many store workers here, the increase in the number of tourists more than made up for this loss.
âLife is better now with tourists,â said Shen Wenying, 66. Sitting on a wooden stool one recent afternoon, Ms. Shen dipped her hands in a bucket to extract the dead silkworms from their small white cocoons to make silk thread. While she was working, a group of tourists began to gather to take photos of what appeared to be a seasoned local craftswoman at work.