Adam James Smith: Latest Film On The Replica Of Jackson Hole In Beijing, China

"We persuaded the- the security guards at the front entrance of the town to let us, in this case, Jackson Hole, China is a gated community. You can only access the town if you live there or work there. Anyway, they let us in for 30 minutes and they followed us, one of them followed us around the community for 30 minutes and amazingly in those 30 minutes we encountered Mr. Liu, the founder and figurehead of Jackson Hole, China, the man who built it. And he invited us to stay full two nights in the Grand Teton Hotel!" - Adam James Smith

Adam James Smithis an award-winning, US-based filmmaker originally from the United Kingdom. Adam holds degrees from Stanford and Cambridge, the latter of which he is currently an Affiliated Filmmaker at the university’s Visual Anthropology Lab. He is also an Assistant Professor of Multimedia at Florida Atlantic University.

His films focus on the expression of identity in urban China and include The Land of Many Palaces (2015) co-directed with Song Ting, on the “ghost city” of Ordos, Inner Mongolia and his first solo-feature, Americaville (2020) on an American Wild West-themed community in Beijing’s suburbs. The Land of Many Palaces participated in the Sundance Institute workshop and premiered at the 2015 Santa Barbara International Film Festival. The film then went on to screen at festivals around the world, picking up awards in Moscow, Rome, and Kyoto. Adam also embarked on an academic tour in North America, screening at Harvard, Columbia, Duke, Stanford, the Asia Society, and many more universities and organizations.

About Americaville: Hidden among the mountains north of Beijing, a replica of the Wyoming town of Jackson Hole promises to deliver the American dream to its several thousand Chinese residents. In Americaville, Annie Liu escapes China’s increasingly uninhabitable capital city to pursue happiness, freedom, romance, and spiritual fulfillment in Jackson Hole; only to find the American idyll harder to attain than what was promised to her.

Emy DiGrappa:

Hello, my name is Emy DiGrappa. Each week we bring you stories asking our guests the question why? We learn about passion, purpose and the human experience brought to you by Wyoming Humanities with the generous support of the Wyoming Community Foundation, this is What's Your Why? Today we are talking to Adam James Smith. He is an award-winning filmmaker. He is originally from England but now based in the United States, welcome Adam.

Adam Smith:

Thank you. It's great to be here.

Emy DiGrappa:

Thank you. I love that you created a film called Americaville and that it is a replica of Jackson hole. And what was your journey in creating that film? Why Jackson Hole and- and why Jackson Hole, China?

Adam Smith:

Great question or great first question. So I've been learning about both Chinese and American cultures since I was very young. My dad was actually a businessman in China and the United States and he would return home from his travels and talk about both places, his experiences in both countries around the kitchen table. And I think you internalize what your parents say, you know, as a child. So as soon as I was old enough to start traveling by myself in- in Great Britain, that's around age 14 in the United States, I think it's much older, I traveled to China with a Chinese friend who was a little bit older and I went to stay with uh, him and his parents in a central Chinese city called Wuhan.

Adam Smith:

And it was one of the most unusual uh, experiences I've ever had in my life. Didn't see any foreign people for the whole two weeks I was the only Chinese people. I got stared up all the time and I'd never had an experience like it. I felt very displaced, very disorientated and very, very foreign. I returned home and I developed an even deeper interest in China. At the same time, I was also developing an interest in the United States too, and much of our media in the UK, the television shows we watch, the movies that we watch at the cinema are produced in the United States. So we really have uh, a- a lot of, uh, access and knowledge about American culture.

Adam Smith:

So a bit later in life, but kind of around the time I- I started college, I started to travel again to China and um, produce short projects there. I started to work with, uh, Chinese filmmakers, uh, Chinese journalists. And at this time China was kind of opening up to the world and I was still very interested in this experience of being foreign in China, but more and more follow, uh, uh, foreigners were entering the country and living and working there and producing projects there. And- and throughout my twenties I lived in China and I also came to the United States, uh, to study. So I kinda cu- cultivated an interest in both countries and both cultures. I shot my first feature documentary in China after graduating from Stanford university in California and I co-directed it with a Chinese filmmaker and it was about the migration of rural people into a new city that the Chinese government had built called Ordos.

Adam Smith:

And it- it made headlines around uh, the world for being a ghost city, you know, an empty city. A lot of people were confused about why it being built, who- who had it been built for. And really in our film, we sought to answer this question. It had been built for rural people, um, to house them, uh, while the Chinese government went about consolidating their farm land into large scale industrial agriculture and moving them off the land into these new cities. So I finished that film I went to China for a press week and I had a press screening for the Foreign Correspondents' Club of China. And I had dinner with a friend after that screening who was a journalist and they told me about a 'cowboy town' that had been built two hours North of Beijing. And I was in Beijing so I thought, wow, this is tha- that sounds so strange.

Adam Smith:

So I went back to my hotel and I couldn't sleep that night [inaudible 00:04:48] I was so jet lagged. So I Google this place or I think I, Google's banned in China. So I think maybe I typed it into Baidu, an up popped Jackson Hole, Beijing. And I decided I have to go. I had one day off in China between all the screenings and I rented a car and I drove up there, uh, with a person a f- a friend who later became one of the producers on the project. We managed to find it from this very vague address that we saw on the developer's website. It was very hard to find. It took about three or four hours to find. I- it was quite secretive and I'll explain why it was quite secretive in the early days-

Emy DiGrappa:

Okay, mm-hmm (affirmative).

Adam Smith:

... five, six years ago. We persuaded the- the security guards at the front entrance of the town to let us, in this case, Jackson Hole, China is a gated community. You can only access the town if you live there or work there. Anyway, they let us in for 30 minutes and they followed us, one of them followed us around the community for 30 minutes and amazingly in those 30 minutes we encountered Mr. Liu, the founder and figurehead of Jackson Hole, China, the man who built it. And he invited us to stay full two nights in the Grand Teton Hotel in the community and we stayed.

Adam Smith:

And during those two days we interviewed probably 50 people. We went on several real estate tours where a real estate agent will take you around the town, show you various properties, uh, and attempt to sell the Wyoming way of life, the- the American dream, however you want to call it, to potential Chinese buyers. So we observed all of this. After those two days I thought there has to be a feature documentary film made about this place it's so special. And I think because I had grown up and developed such a- a deep interest in Chinese and American cultures and societies, this was the perfect opportunity to explore the collision of American and Chinese uh, cultures kind of colliding in this very unique location in China.

Emy DiGrappa:

And what is the collision? What is the- the place where it comes together and- and weaves itself, I mean-

Adam Smith:

Yeah.

Emy DiGrappa:

... I know just from our Chinese tourism in Jackson Hole that there is this great intrigue of the cowboy culture and the Western way of life. So tell me about that and ho- and where you found it came together for you.

Adam Smith:

Well, firstly, I'll say that Jackson Hole, Wyoming, the original has become one of these places in China that- that is so famous for no particular reason. There are many Alpine towns throughout the American West that are gorgeous places. Jackson Hole is particularly gorgeous and is- is situated very close to two amazing national parks. You know, the Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone. So that could be one reason, but for some reason it's become very, very famous in China. And when you speak to ch- many Chinese people who are looking to visit the United States, you'll ask them, “Where do you plan to visit?” And they'll say, "Well, if we go to the- the American West, we want to go to Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Jackson Hole.

Emy DiGrappa:

(laughs) Oh well.

Adam Smith:

And you ask them, why do they want to go to Jackson Hole? And they say, “Well, it's so famous. It has all the right components.” It, it's situated between um, mountains, there's a river that runs through it. It's very snowy in the winter. That's a very picturesque town, sort of a history of cowboy culture there. It's close to Yellowstone so it has all the right factors that Chinese people are kind of looking for when they visit a quintessential American Wild West town, I suppose. So I'll say that first that it's the original is very famous in China for those reasons. So to go into why exactly have they replicated it and built it two hours North of Beijing? This is quite a complex thing to answer and I think firstly I'll say that many of the people who have chosen to buy homes in Jackson Hole, China, they grew up under very strict conditions under communism. They were assigned to work units. They had really no choice or very little choice over what work they do, over where they live, over what they eat, over how everyday life is managed. Everything was determined by government.

Adam Smith:

So now that China has come out of that to some extent, and it's now more of a free market economy, Chinese people can travel and they have all of these options, right? They can deci- if they have money, if they have wealth, they can decide where they live, what they eat, what they do for work and so on and so forth. It's- it's a very powerful thing to exercise. The ability to choose to live in an American style home for example, compared to, you know, a gray apartment building that they grew up in. In Jackson Hole, they see embodied not only tangible things that they want, like a large house and to them exotic furnishings. You know, these items that you see around in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, like in my hotel where I'm staying right now, you know, the lamps and the, and the uh, fabrics and to them that's exotic. You know-

Emy DiGrappa:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Adam Smith:

... it's very fascinating.

Emy DiGrappa:

Right.

Adam Smith:

So they have tangible things that they want there that they're achieving at the American household items, the furnishings, the planting and the scenery. Having a l- a large yard where they can grow flowers and vegetables. There are also things that aren't tangible, that are represented and embodied within the place that are a little bit more abstract that they feel have been missing in their lives up until this point coming out of- of this very strict period where most people lived in poverty. They see an expression of wealth, they see freedom, they see happiness, the p- the idea of the pursuit of happiness, which is quite a new idea in China, which the Chinese have latched onto and have kind of rebranded in a way. There was a government campaign called the Chinese dream. You should pursue the Ch- Chinese dream, right? That the new Chinese, uh, administration kind of implemented their new propaganda campaign.

Emy DiGrappa:

Does that seem controversial though to being in China and what the government still wants to have control, but then they have this other side of it that is not the same thing. And so doesn't that go against their, you know, idea and their idealism about what they want their country to be?

Adam Smith:

That's a very good point. And there is this tension in Chinese society right now and in the specific location of Jackson Hole, China, right where I was uh, shooting this documentary when this place was built, it was really my- my Chinese friend described it as a time of anything goes. So they started building the town around 2004, 2005 and have- have been building it since. That was a very different kinda political era in China where developers could really build almost anything they wanted.

Adam Smith:

But recently there's been a new nationalistic movement in China. There are new forms of nationalism kind of developing around the world, you know, in Western Europe, in my country, in Great Britain, in the United States, and indeed in China, China's not immune from it. And this new form of nationalism is seeking to reclaim some of the traditional Chinese culture and e- elements of Chinese culture that were actually destroyed in the cultural revolution.

Emy DiGrappa:

Right.

Adam Smith:

Uh, the cultural revolution was a very s- stressful period of Chinese history because a lot of Chinese um, history was essentially erased many relics and buildings and temples were destroyed by the red army. And one thing that Mao wanted to do was kind of hit the reset button on the country and basically erase many of what he saw as um, things were, that were elitist, right? Uh, destroy those things and then create a new culture. But ironically, now the Chinese communist party is trying to rehash some of these traditional Chinese elements from their history that were destroyed originally under communism.

Adam Smith:

So there's this new form of nationalism in China, um, that deems some foreign influences as uh, unpatriotic. And Jackson Hole, China and its inhabitants were even described in some articles by state media as traitors to China that they had turned their backs on the Chinese national identity, whatever that means and-

Emy DiGrappa:

[inaudible 00:14:36] had read that.

Adam Smith:

... And had favored-

Emy DiGrappa:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Adam Smith:

... had favored, uh, uh, American culture. Um, and that really hit them hard. It actually rattled the leadership of the town. Um, this is covered, um, somewhat in the film as well. Um, this period when they're being criticized and how they respond to it. And- and how they go about trying to integrate more Chinese elements into this American style town that they built based on- on Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Emy DiGrappa:

When was the first time that you came to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. You'd already been to Jackson Hole, Beijing before you even came here, right?

Adam Smith:

(laughs) Exactly. So I had been filming in Jackson Hole, China for, uh, two and a half years at that point before I visited the original Jackson Hole. I actually visited, uh, in September 2017 so it's been a while. And this is my second time here, um, to- to screen the Finnish film here at the, uh, Center for the Arts. So I had seen the replica first and then the original second, right?

Emy DiGrappa:

Right.

Adam Smith:

So it was a very unusual experience for me to come to the original Jackson Hole. And- and I was almost nostalgic for the replica because I lived in the replica, you know, I rented a house there, I lived there on and off for really two years and, um, and got to know the town very well and the buildings and the names, the street names, and then to come to the original and see some of the same buildings. Um, some of the same, uh, street names was kinda disorientating in a way, yeah.

Emy DiGrappa:

And what did, what did you think? Was it so close? Was it so different, the, you know, the- the spirit here different from, you know, what the quality of life there, what did you find just was like not even close together (laughs)?

Adam Smith:

(laughs) Um, some things were close and some things were- were distant. Um, I think the first thing I noticed when I arrived was, wow, there are also a lot of Chinese people in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Uh, in September 2017 when I was here, perhaps even half the people I saw in the town square, uh, and over, over lunch in the, in the restaurant that I, that I, uh, ate in were Chinese tourists. So I sort of felt at home almost back in Jackson Hole, China. Um, so that was interesting. One of the main things that was different was Jackson Hole, China is a gated community. You have to live there or work there in order to access the town. And obviously here in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, uh, anyone can access it. Although somebody pointed this out recently that actually there are similarities in the demographics of the two Jackson Holes.

Adam Smith:

So in Jackson Hole, China, it's really very wealthy people that inhabit the town, that purchase houses there and that come in on a weekend or come in for a certain segment of the year for holidays for example, uh, to spend time there. And while they're there, they really want access to wilderness and sometimes almost like a simulation of- of the rural lifestyle of- of, uh, of being in the wilderness and being out there and- and hunting or- or fishing or feeling that they're part of- of the natural landscape in a way, if that makes sense. Or a, or a rural- rural life.

Adam Smith:

And then of course there's this population of people who maintaining the town, people who also live there, but they live in very different types of accommodation they live in- in dormitories as opposed to these very lavish, uh, uh, log cabin style homes, um, who are real estate agents and chefs and people maintaining the- the planting and mowing the lawns, doing the laundry. So really there are these two populations that inhabit Jackson Hole, China. And I've been told that it's quite similar here in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, that you have-

Emy DiGrappa:

It is, mm-hmm (affirmative).

Adam Smith:

... a very wealthy population who purchase lavish homes here. And then you have, um, the service sector.

Emy DiGrappa:

Right.

Adam Smith:

People who work in the service sector-

Emy DiGrappa:

Right.

Adam Smith:

... who are really maintaining the town and- and running it in a way.

Emy DiGrappa:

Oh my gosh. Yeah. That- that is so it's such an interesting, you know, you just nailed it right there. Is- is we have that income disparity here and you have the service industry that is really working hard sometimes two and three jobs-

Adam Smith:

Yeah.

Emy DiGrappa:

... to just live in Jackson Hole because they love living here. And then you have the second homeowner, you know, the people who-

Adam Smith:

Right.

Emy DiGrappa:

... come in just, you know, on a vacation or they-

Adam Smith:

Right.

Emy DiGrappa:

... they live here half the year and they fly in and out. And you know, I think our airport is the only airport in a um, national park.

Adam Smith:

Really?

Emy DiGrappa:

Mm-hmm (affirmative), mm-hmm (affirmative).

Adam Smith:

It's interesting.

Emy DiGrappa:

Yeah.

Adam Smith:

Yeah.

Emy DiGrappa:

So, um, yes, so you have that, that's so intriguing. And I'm so looking forward to seeing the entire film because it brings up so many other interesting questions to me about, well, first of all, the Chinese tourism has been on the rise-

Adam Smith:

Yes.

Emy DiGrappa:

... and it grows every year, which is why when you're here in September (laughs).

Adam Smith:

Yes.

Emy DiGrappa:

But it also just brings up the question of is there this inner struggle for freedom in China or do they feel free?

Adam Smith:

Yeah.

Emy DiGrappa:

How do they feel about themselves?

Adam Smith:

Yeah, it's- it's a good question. So- so first of I'll say, um, so because I'm not local to China, I'm not a Chinese person-

Emy DiGrappa:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Adam Smith:

... I've, I've spent an awful lot of time there and I've really grown up with China. Um, I- I do have a sense of how they feel on this topic. As I mentioned, older people in China, many of whom, u- u- u- many of whom live in- in places like Jackson Hole, Beijing now, um, who all wealthier, um, who can afford a- a nice home in the suburbs of Chinese cities. Um, they grew up under very, very strict conditions where they had very, very little freedom, if any.

Emy DiGrappa:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Adam Smith:

They were assigned to their work unit. Uh, and they were, they had no choice over what work they pursued over where they lived. Um, e- even the, you know, very little choice in some cases of who they married, right? Um, so now they've come out of that. Um, and since the reforms and opening up of China, now they have many, many more options. Uh, there is this desire to- to really pursue their interests I think um, because they are more free to some extent in-

Emy DiGrappa:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Adam Smith:

... in at least the material-

Emy DiGrappa:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Adam Smith:

... aspects of life, the choices that they have about where they live, what kind of home they live in, um, what kind of car they buy.

Emy DiGrappa:

I think that's the human experience. I think every human being, wherever you live, wherever you're from-

Adam Smith:

Right, right.

Emy DiGrappa:

... wants to have that outward expression-

Adam Smith:

Right.

Emy DiGrappa:

... and that freedom to pursue who you are and what you want-

Adam Smith:

Right.

Emy DiGrappa:

... and what makes you happy. So I- I feel like that's where your film really touches, you know, on- on those kinds of things, which is very interesting.

Adam Smith:

[crosstalk 00:22:40].

Emy DiGrappa:

Well, I want you to tell me before we have to leave where can people view your film, can you download it someplace? What, where can you find it?

Adam Smith:

So I just had the release week in California and I screened it at the 2020 Santa Barbara International Film Festival in their documentary competition. And I had several of the screening site. So because I just released the film, I'm going to be traveling around the country with it and screening at various venues, film festivals, organizations like the Jacksonville Centre of the Arts, museums, universities, and then at a later date, hopefully screen it on television-

Emy DiGrappa:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Adam Smith:

... and then on streaming services.

Emy DiGrappa:

Oh good.

Adam Smith:

So the thing that I'm really excited about with this film is engaging with audiences, being there with the audience.

Emy DiGrappa:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Adam Smith:

So I'm very attached to traveling with the film for the first at least six months.

Emy DiGrappa:

Right.

Adam Smith:

So I can go out there to meet audiences, talk about the complexities of the film, because the film, yes, it was shot in China, but many ways it's about America, uh, specifically about the American West and the impact that an American media has had on the world.

Emy DiGrappa:

Right.

Adam Smith:

Because many, really, one of the reasons why this town exists in China is because Chinese people have seen representations of the American West in American movies, American TV shows, uh, American advertising, and it's embedded in their psyche.

Emy DiGrappa:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Adam Smith:

You know, they, they've seen these characters in fictional movies-

Emy DiGrappa:

Right.

Adam Smith:

... and they've said, well, I want that.

Emy DiGrappa:

Right.

Adam Smith:

You know, I- I don't have that, but I want that. And now that many of these people have the freedom to do so, if they can live in an American style town on the outskirts of Beijing, they will do, right? If th- if they have the ability to do that. But many of the- the desires are developed through seeing representations of American culture and the American West in this media that really permeates the whole world. It's not just-

Emy DiGrappa:

It's not just-

Adam Smith:

... United States, right?

Emy DiGrappa:

Right, I agree.

Adam Smith:

It's the whole world.

Emy DiGrappa:

Right.

Adam Smith:

Even I, as a kid growing up in rural England, I saw American TV shows and movies and I thought, wow, it must be wonderful to live in America and pursue the American dream.

Emy DiGrappa:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Adam Smith:

And then I move here and I realize actually it's not all like you see in American films actually living in America can be very hard and is very hard. There are many challenges, unique challenges to pursuing the American dream here.

Emy DiGrappa:

Yeah, that's true.

Adam Smith:

So I do wanna engage with American audiences, talk about the film, what it means, why Chinese people or this group of Chinese people want to live some aspect of the American dream. And I'm tremendously excited about screening it tonight in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Emy DiGrappa:

Thank you. Thank you and it's been great talking to you.

Adam Smith:

Thank you.

Emy DiGrappa:

Thank you for joining us for this episode of What's Your Why? Brought to you by Wyoming Humanities with support Wyoming Community Foundation and generous supporters like you. To learn more, go to thinkwhy.org subscribe and never miss a show.