Dai Tribe: The Beauties of Southern Yunnan

Some of my earliest memories involve pouring over a book of Botticelli's portfolio. At that age, I had no idea who the Renaissance masters were. Nor did I know at the time how well female nudity would be able to one day take hold of so much of my attention. I just knew that I loved that book while listening to the Carpenter's song, "Close to You," which I called "The Angel Song."

I knew that I was coming here with my camera and hoping to photograph beautiful women. I just was not prepared for them to be paraded on the stage like in a beauty pageant.

The Dai women are known for their striking beauty. Communities are found in all of the neighboring countries with China being second, to Myanmar in population, with a little over a million inhabitants.

The architecture, reverence for elephants, and motifs immediately remind me of Thai culture. The similar sounding words Dai and Thai suggest that this tribal group has some related ancestry with the Kingdom of Siam. This is entirely plausible as this group was uprooted from their homes, which rested on the lands that warring nations eventual settles as their borders. The history of this region over the past two hundred years would give this group plenty of reason to move more than a dozen times. Naturally, I am fascinated by this beautiful tribe but I never got the chance to chat with anyone and learned what they did when they were not working at the tourist park.

Upon arriving we walked past a walkway lined with pretty girls wearing pink silken skirts and matching tops. They dipped freshly picked leaves from some flowering tree into a silver water vessel and lightly splashed me with the water droplets.

I was brought to a home where a family was milling around. I was brought into a separate room (the one pictured above) and offered tea. The red velvet drape was removed. The table was full of silver jewelry, bowls, and other items all intricately engraved in the traditional way. There was no pressure to buy but for all they knew, I was a rich businessman who was in great need of stocking up on silver spoons.

On the way to the performance hall, there were people selling the chance to take photos with snakes, elephants, and even statuesque beauties dressed in traditional clothes.

The hall was canopied but opened-air. There were not many seats and so everyone could enjoy a ground level view. It was perfect for taking photos. This set up was also convenient for audience members to take part in helping to judge a beauty pageant later in the show.

The women were tall and looked more southeast Asian than Chinese. They wore beautiful dresses that highlighted their great figures.

We learned about their lifestyle and village life through their dances. After a costume change, the girls would show how they farmed, washed their hair, fished, and even demonstrated some courting rituals between men and women.

With the 18-55mm kit lens in my Canon 450d, I struggled the get shots that I would be proud of today with a better system. But the resulting images remind me of that time period. At the time I had only been photographing for a year. Back then, I felt quite sure of what I was doing.

Photography has been a companion while I travel. Something to keep me company and help document the experience for future memories. I think photographers are always things about the future--anticipating the moment to capture or how the image fits into the larger project. And as viewers, we are often recalling past memories. Finding that balance between both of those is what I stive for.

The prettiest girls from the show were brought out in front of the stage. It was explained that there would be a competition. The audience was invited to place a necklace around the neck of the beauty he or she felt was the most beautiful.

The necklaces are called xiang bao because of the weaved package stuffed with flowers and fragrant twigs. These xiang bao are tokens of good fortune and are often offered as a friendly gesture. Here they served as an easy way to tally up the votes for each beauty. It only cost the audience member ($15). A total rip off but an important gesture for helping the girls save face. And if you are a company boss, who brought his employees to Yunnan as a consolation for not paying them very well, it behooves him to show that the company cannot only afford to treat employees on a great trip but that he has so much extra money so that he can engage in a vote buying war with some other audience member.

Living in a foreign country has taught me to pay closer attention to facial gestures and physical cues. Most things can be understood with rudimentary Chinese and a keen eye. So I was very aware of the girls who giggled to each other as the wicker basket filled with hundred yuan notes. To me, it looked like the girls thought the men were silly. When offered the xiang bao, they hardly cracked a smile.  The most likely perform this show three times a day and a little jaded at the googly-eyed men fixed on the many midriffs.

 I love events with many candid moments. But I also love stage shows with beautiful women dressed up and with perfect make-up. Dancers are particularly fun to photograph because I have to anticipate the peak of their jumps and gestures. This particular show had lots of long poses and slow movements. The absence of dynamic movement was not worth criticising while I was enjoying the skin on dispaly.