Minority dress photography, or “ethnic travel shoots.” Quite a mouthful but a must-have on the China Fashion menu given it’s a main course Chinese (Gen-Z) travelers have developed a taste for. Tourists dressed to impress in traditional local clothing are hamming it up for the camera all over the Middle Kingdom. Time for a close-up!
“Click, click, flash, flash. Click, flash, flash, flash, click, click, click. Flash, flash, flash. Gorgeous! Stunning! Absolutely fabulous!” With all the photos being taken around her, had this author not known any better, she would’ve thought to be in an episode of, well, Absolutely Fabulous, the illustrious 1990s British hit comedy documenting the wild misadventures of Edina “Eddy” Monsoon and her best friend Patsy Stone, who live in a virtually constant haze of inebriated self-interest.
Nothing could be further from the truth, however, as yours truly was pounding the stone boards of Barkhor Street, polished by endless years of foot traffic, in the old area of Lhasa City, capital of Tibet Autonomous Region, one of China’s westernmost regions, in late May. But the gasps of “gorgeous!” enveloping the ears like surround sound weren’t directed at the view of the majestic snowcapped mountains rising up from behind the original Lhasa architecture. Nor at the golden roof ornaments of the Dazhao Temple, the oldest building in the city–dating back to the 7th Century, glistening in the blindingly bright noon sunlight.
Nope. Instead, they were coming from the flock of photographers capturing tourists, from single individuals to entire families, flicking their delicate and intricate Tibetan braids and twirling around the streets decked out in traditional local clothing, hamming it up for the camera.
Minority dress photography is hot to trot.
Ready For Their Close-Up
Fast fact 1: Tibetan braids had long been on the wane as many young Tibetan women, with influences from the outside world, would prefer to cut and style their hair according to modern secular aesthetics. But just a few years ago, the braids embarked on a spectacular comeback with the tourists. Downtown Lhasa has become a place for tourists to get their hair braided and a hub for locals to earn a living from braiding. And their business acumen is weaving old and new.
Before we explain, a little throwback. In July 2022, yours truly spotted within the ancient walls of Kashgar City, Xinjiang Autonomous Region, people dolled up from head to toe in local dress having their pictures taken professionally at historical sites. These ubiquitous concept shoots were reminiscent of their peers across China, with people wearing hanfu (汉服| hànfú in Chinese) inside, for example, Beijing’s Forbidden City, the city’s illustrious imperial palace in the Ming and Qing dynasties (1368-1911).Up Close and Personal
Hanfu, meaning Han Chinese dress, is based on the age-old fashion traditions of the largest of all 56 ethnic groups in China: the Han (covering some 92 percent of the population). With the help of social media, a hanfu revival movement has emerged out of a desire to express national identity and the growing confidence of Chinese youths to express themselves. In the past couple of years, young Chinese have elevated the dress code from a niche hobby to a generation’s tool of cultural expression, while transforming it into a passionate consumer market.
And it seems that from Xinjiang to Xizang, the same logic applies. Fast fact 2: According to China’s phonetic system, or pinyin, Tibet is Romanized as Xizang.
From photography and fashion studios specializing in taking traditional Uygur portraits at locations within Kashgar’s ancient walls to tourists in Lhasa striking a pose between pilgrims performing the kora, a form of pilgrimage or meditation in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, that includes circumambulations around temples and repeated prostrations at holy sites.
“It’s just a unique and fun thing to do; you pay roughly RMB 800 RMB (USD 113) to get your makeup and hair done, get help choosing a traditional local outfit and accessories that are right for you and then get your pics taken,” a woman in her early twenties from south China’s Guangdong Province told yours truly as she was putting on a heavy oversized yak wool coat inside a narrow alley off the main street—harboring 13 of her peers and their photographers, we should add.
The concept of playing local dress-up to get a unique souvenir to show off on social media is no longer a lighthearted hobby popping up here and there, it’s a phenomenon—a nationwide hardcore industry, even. Minority dress travel photography (民族旅拍 | mínzú lǚ pāi, literally “ethnic travel shoots”) is all the rage.
Fast facts 3, 4 and 5:
- Hashtag 民族服装拍影 ( mínzúfúzhuāng pāi yǐng | minority dress photography) featured 135 million videos on Douyin, China’s TikTok, as of June 17; 我穿上民族服装 (wǒ chuānshǎng mínzúfúzhuāng| literally “I wore minority dress”) had 440 million related videos on the platform;
- Hashtag 民族风 (mínzúfēng| the particular style of an ethnic group) came with 388k notes and 513k+ products on Chinese lifestyle platform 小红书 ( xiǎohóngshū| Little Red Book) as of the same date;
- Minority dress photography is sometimes also referred to as 民族服饰打卡 (mínzúfúshì dǎkǎ ). Remember that word, daka.
One local Lhasa shop owner said that out of the 270 Barkhor businesses, half were engaged in this type of concept photography. “Moreover, when business is dwindling, many entrepreneurs here will turn to offering styled photo ops to make up for the financial losses.”
Minority dress photography fever is also serving up a new source of income for many professional photographers nationwide. Take the example of Yaobu Ancient Town in southwest China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. Local photographer Qin Jiafei told China News Agency in April, “Compared with my previous job in the studio, my income has increased a lot and I can shoot hundreds to thousands of yuan [tens of thousands of U.S. dollars] per night.” Qin used to be a studio photographer, but when he saw the tourist appetite for minority dress photography getting ready to devour Yaobu, he quit his job and became a fulltime photographer there. Guangxi is home to the Miao minority, one of China’s largest ethnic groups and, in terms of fashion, especially known for its love of silver.
But isn’t this type of concept photography extremely superficial (on the part of travelers)? Perhaps. Is it cultural appropriation? No. It’s still about cultural appreciation. Quote, Qin.
Back in Barkhor, a twentysomething man holding a typical Tibetan prayer wheel and getting ready to soak up his two hours in the spotlight his told this author, “This site makes for a perfect pitstop to take in the sights and make some memories; plus, Barkhor has some legit dakadians [perfect spots for a photo op].”
Daka (literally “punching a card”) means taking one’s photo in a picture-perfect place to then show off on social media. Daka tourism is yet another trending Chinese phenomenon slash hardcore industry.
Packing a Punch
The term daka originally refers to “punching in,” the act of using a card to punch in and out of work. In its latest form, daka tells of marking one’s visit to a hot destination by posting proof on social media, preferably on Douyin, China’s TikTok. Douyin is insanely popular amongst millennials and Gen Z. In 2023, of Douyin’s 730 million monthly active users, one in three are under the age of 26.
Daka culture is related to the search for the picture-perfect selfie backdrop. Pre-pandemic China saw daka travel troupes touring cities to “punch as many destination cards as possible,” according to British-Chinese travel consulting firm Guanxi Group in October 2020. Travel agents then soon started offering daka tours and savvy destinations and attractions “built in” striking views and backgrounds. Tourism brands are also teaming up with influencers on Douyin to encourage them to visit to put them on the daka map. And the trend is proving not as fleeting as the visits it inspires.
After three years of pandemic restrictions, daka travel is back–with a vengeance. Hashtag daka had a mind-blowing 11 billion videos on Douyin as of June 17. And minority dress photography is rapidly rising through its sub-ranks, with thousands of new related posts and videos popping up every day, especially with travel season now underway. This concept definitely packs a pzazzy punch.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ELSBETH VAN PARIDON
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