But living in the old part of the town means backwardness and cramped conditions for locals. Rich villagers have moved out of the old neighborhood into reinforced concrete buildings. Detached from the lives in their home village, they long for urban conveniences and fads, indulging themselves in Internet bars, billiard games and new clothes and digital gadgets. A wall poster I saw in one of the new neighborhoods showed that there was a modern dance performance at the weekend.
I found a group of local youths drinking loudly in Tang's Hibiscus Restaurant. "Most of the boys in the town go to cities to work as casual laborers when they grow old enough to take care of themselves, and after they return home, they behave as if they were sophisticated adults who have a good knowledge of the world and have picked up the habit of smoking and drinking," said Tang Zhaohui.
Fenghuang (Phoenix) is another well-preserved antique water town in western Hunan. Local life has lost its tranquility and unsophisticated nature since curious urbanites and foreign travelers discovered it and turned it into a hot tourist destination. The town's narrow slab-paved streets are congested by tourists and vendors selling souvenirs and local products. When night falls, the riverside streets and stilted plank houses are illuminated by neon lights, and deafening rock music from dimly-lit bars disturbs the ancient town's tranquility.
Tuojiang Family Inn is one of the oldest accommodation facilities in Pheonix Town. "A decade ago there were only four inns in the town – now no one knows for sure how many there are," sighs 60-year-old inn keeper Teng Shulian. "The town is not the beautiful Fenghuang I knew in the past."
Tourists and leisure boats have become part of everyday life in Fenghuang Town.
Compared with Phoenix, Hibiscus Town is a latecomer to tourism. Will locals like Tang Zhaohui lament the lost beauty of their village after another decade of the tourism boom? For the time being, Tang fancies urban comfort more than the rustic charm of his hometown. In response to my admiration of Furong's beauty, he comments, "What is there to see in the village? It is the city that is really beautiful."