What I Learned About Racism as the Only Chinese Person at a 'Chinese' Festival
Every year, 20,000 people come together to wear eyeliner and shout "Ni hao" at each other at a Chinese festival in the Bavarian town of Dietfurt.
All photos: Alexander Freundorfer
This article originally appeared on VICE Germany
It's everywhere. The local butcher shop has been renamed "The China Butcher Shop", while the bakery has transformed into a "Chinese Bakery" selling fresh "Chinese donuts and pretzels". There's light beer, dark oak furniture and red Chinese lanterns. The phrase "Ni hao!" is being shouted out at will.
Amid all this, I am the only real-life Chinese person in sight.
The source of my confusion lies in the small German city of Dietfurt, situated along the Altmühl river in the south-east of the country. Every Thursday before Ash Wednesday, the city is transformed into "Bavarian China", and its inhabitants become "Chinese", dressing up in "traditional" clothing and wearing yellowface makeup. This annual festival is not some niche sideshow – around 20,000 people flock to Dietfurt every year to take part.
I grew up in northern Germany as the child of Chinese immigrants, and had experienced racism by the time I was in kindergarten – before I even knew what it was. I've come to Dietfurt to get an understanding not only of this bizarre tradition, but also the people behind it. What motivates the people of Dietfurt to hold this seemingly racist celebration year after year? And can "tradition" ever be a good enough excuse?
The Wake-Up Call
It's 1AM on the morning of the carnival. Thirty locals dressed in fur vests, red wigs and colourful face paint are gathered in a Chinese restaurant on the outskirts of the city. Loud, celebratory singing can be heard coming from inside. This is the traditional wake-up call. From here, the group of clowns will noisily make their way through the town to wake everyone up and officially inaugurate the carnival.
One of these clowns is Franz, a Dietfurt native with a strong local accent, tattooed arms and a flashy metal necklace. He's wearing a yellow bathrobe embroidered with flowers and a wig that looks like a giant piece of candy floss. His beard is braided into two pigtails tied with colourful bobbles. Franz is 56 years old, and for the last 38 of them he's participated in the carnival wake-up call.
"In the past, we've covered over 24 kilometres in a day," he tells me, adding that he and his fellow clowns take their roles very seriously – promising that nothing will stop them from completing their duties. "It doesn't matter if we get blitzed by ice or 15 centimetres of snow."
Instead of the racist Chinese jokes I had expected, they're serving hot and sour soup with rye bread today. Franz beckons to the Chinese chef, Yuen, and orders another bowl for me. "Want some more bread, lad?" he asks. I've been at the table with Franz for less than 30 minutes, but I already feel like I belong here.
At 2AM we set off to wake up the local celebrities – the mayor, the dentist and the carnival's organising committee. Some play trumpets and trombones, and two men push a giant antique double-barrel cannon. "Whenever it goes off, the neighbouring town stands to attention," says Franz. Together, we march towards the city centre.
Dietfurt has 6,000 inhabitants but looks much smaller. There are more butchers than supermarkets, more inns than kebab shops. The one main street is called "Main Street", and there's a street named after the town's train station – though there's no longer a train station. A bus leaves five times a day and residents delight in telling me that it's easier to get out of Dietfurt than in.
So how did this festival wind up here?
Legend has it that long ago, the Bishop of the nearby town of Eichstätt sent his treasurer to Dietfurt to collect taxes. The people of Dietfurt got wind of it, so they barricaded the city gates and left the treasurer outside. He stomped back in a rage and complained that the Dietfurtians were hiding behind their walls "like the Chinese". If and when this might actually have happened isn't exactly clear.
Either way, Dietfurt has chosen to identify itself with Chinese culture ever since. In 1928, the Dietfurt City Orchestra were the first to play dress up – 16 men and women wearing rice hats, Chinese plaits and robes. In 1954, Dietfurt chose its first emperor.
Sixty-five years later, Manfred Koller looks into his bathroom mirror and carefully applies some eyeliner. The 51-year-old bricklayer is leaning over the sink holding a small bottle of golden glitter with a pot of kohl and an eyeliner pencil nearby. In a few hours he will become "Emperor Fu-Gao-Di".
The emperor has a full day planned: a visit to a kindergarten, a lunch of traditional white sausage, a press reception and a podium gala. He picks up the pot of kohl and dabs a bit of colour into the corner of his eye.
I ask him what he's doing. "I'm trying to make the shape of my eyes look like slits," he says. I see.
If he thinks it's awkward to paint on slitty eyes while I'm standing right next to him, he doesn't show it. "Have you ever stopped to think that you might be offending some people with all this?" I ask. "Nah, not at all, because it's just a way of emphasising facial contours, so it's not that bad," he says.
The emperor licks a cotton swab and fills in his facial hair – which is already shaped like a Fu Manchu beard – with black makeup. He finds this subject matter "a bit tough" to talk about. His intentions aren't bad, he says – on the contrary, in fact. "We think Chinese culture is very interesting," he says. "There's never been a real Chinese person who had a problem with it."
The emperor believes he's making more of an effort to pay homage to Chinese culture by importing his costumes from China. When he can't, for whatever reason, he wears custom-made replicas.
In his "carnival corner", a sort of shrine to China, stands a stone statue of Guan Yu protected by three samurai swords. Guan Yu was an ancient general who is seen today as a symbol of strength. At first, the emperor claims the statue and swords were "a gift from China", but later admits "they're not from China, but they sure look like it".
For his emperor name he wanted something "authentic", he says. A Chinese friend helped Manfred do research and decided upon the name Fu-Gao-Di. "'Spot on,' I thought at the time. 'I can pronounce that!'" the emperor laughs.
Two hours later, the name roars through a school gymnasium. "Fu-Gao-Di! Fu-Gao-Di!" The gym is lined with Hulks, clowns and Princess Elsas.
"Greetings to you, my offspring!" the emperor roars into a microphone. The children scream "Fu-Gao-Di! Fu-Gao-Di!" in delight and stomp their feet on the floor. At the front door there are two Chinese camera crews capturing every moment of this display.
It's 11AM and a journalist from a local Bavarian TV station is besieging anyone who looks Asian to ask what what they think of the whole thing.
Next, it's time for a morning pint. The Sheippl Tavern is overflowing and smells of beer and fresh pretzels. I squeeze in at the emperor's table and greet him with a hearty "Ni hao!" He's wearing a golden robe and an oblong hat with pearls, which makes him look like a Bavarian version of the emperor in Mulan. He orders white sausage with mustard, which we share with a man dressed as a Buddhist monk.
This doesn't really feel right, but it doesn't feel completely wrong either. Yes, the streets are teeming with visitors in yellowface and people dressed as Chinese caricatures. And yes, this is all clearly utter nonsense, justified with claims that no harm is meant. But at the same time, there are a few people from Dietfurt who are trying to make an honest effort. There's Pia, who works at the tourist office and brings speakers who are actually Chinese to take part in the festival. There's Horst, who is wearing a changshan, a traditional men's tunic that he bought in Beijing in 1996. There's Max, who spent 110 hours carving the dragon's crown for the emperor.
Dietfurt has a cultural partnership with the city of Nanjing, which holds a Bavarian-Chinese Friendship Festival every summer. The Chinese Consul General is invited to Dietfurt's Carnival every year. Of course, there is no excuse for yellowface, but deep down, in some parts of Dietfurt, there does seem to be a genuine appreciation of Chinese culture.
By 1PM, the people of Dietfurt are out in full force. Next to me, a group of Chinese people from Munich take photos, astonished. "How can an entire town love Chinese people so much?" one of them asks me.
When the parade begins, it's so crowded you can hardly move. Soon, I'm being hit in the head with sweets thrown from floats to the crowd below. But I'm too much in the zone to be annoyed, and I roar back: "FU-GAO-DI!" The emperor is coming.
He climbs off his dragon float, makes his way up to his throne and starts reading from a golden book, telling the crowd about the eternal friendship that exists between China and Germany. Dietfurt goes ballistic.
The next day, the town is recovering from a collective hangover. The streets are littered with noodles and broken glass bottles. I walk into a butcher's shop and bump into six drunk men who are still celebrating.
"Konnichiwaaa!" one shouts.
"Good god! A real Chinese person, what's he doing here?" another adds.
"You know, being Chinese isn't a very good costume," a third says.
Comments like these don't make me angry anymore, unfortunately. I know them all too well, which is exactly the problem. If you look different, racism remains a constant part of your life. The question is how you choose to live with it.
For me, racism means writing people off based entirely on their origin or skin colour. Or when people think a "Chinese costume" consists of a kimono and chopsticks, "because it's all Asian anyway". But how devaluing is it when a whole city celebrates their perception of Chinese culture? Calling themselves Chinese, having a Chinese landmark in their town and regularly receiving guests from China?
In Dietfurt, I learned that intent and appreciation play a role in all of this. To me, there's a big difference between people who put on yellowface or wear a clumsy outfit, and those who show a genuine interest in Chinese culture. The qipao and changshan are traditional Chinese garments that aren't worn much anymore in modern China. Cultural appropriation? Maybe. But it's somewhat touching to see some people in Dietfurt more concerned with "my culture" than I am.
Yes, considerable portions of Dietfurt's Chinese carnival are racist, but that doesn't reflect on everyone taking part. I was welcomed warmly during the festivities – as a Chinese person, and as a human being in general. The racism I experienced didn't necessarily come from the people dressing up in awkward cultural clichés. It came from the people – often visitors from outside of town – who couldn't or didn't want to distinguish between what's fake Chinese and what's genuinely Chinese.
This article originally appeared on VICE DE.