Taking the mickey

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 January, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 January, 2005, 12:00am

A young man with shoulder-length black hair stuck his head out of the door. 'Come on, she's getting tired,' he says impatiently. A group of six adults and children have spent the past 10 minutes debating whether or not to enter the shabby wooden hut in the middle of Guangzhou Nanhu Amusement Park - a dilapidated, rusting attraction in the downtown area of this sprawling, polluted city.

'I'm not sure I want to see,' says one.

'It's only seven yuan,' says another.

'What about the boys, won't it disturb them?' asks a third, referring to David and Jack Chang, 10-year-old twins who make up part of the group.

A hand-written sign on the wall gives little indication of what lies behind the peeling white door. 'A beautiful Yao girl from Guangxi Zhuang was orphaned at a very young age,' the sign proclaims. 'Shortly afterwards she developed a strange disease and her body has been forced into a pipe so that her head can be supported. For seven yuan you can look and ask questions. She will even sing.'

What horror lay behind the crumbling wooden facade; what heartless theme park owner would think of displaying the disability of one so young and helpless for their own profit; and what sort of people would pay to gawp at the misfortune of others?

Surely this is modern China, and aren't we in a theme park in the centre of a bustling, developing city? This isn't a freak show in Victorian England, where people with deformities were humiliated and exploited. Images of Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, and the 21st-century equivalent of Coney Island's famous Lobster Boy flash through our minds.

Finally a decision is made. If even a small fraction of the entry fee goes to the unfortunate girl, surely that is better than her starving or begging on the streets? After greedily collecting the money, our host steps aside as the group files slowly into the small room.

Hanging by a cord from the low ceiling, a single fluorescent lamp casts harsh shadows against the rough chipboard walls. Separating the crowd from the main attraction is a waist-high wooden barrier and a dirty white curtain. He again explains that questions can be asked and requests for songs will be entertained. But he is resolute: there is to be no leaning over the barrier or touching.

After checking the audience has understood the house rules, he grips the edge of the curtain and pulls it back with a flourish to reveal ... 'Pipe Girl'.

For 10 seconds a stunned silence fills the room. The sign hanging outside the building is right: she is a beautiful ethnic Yao girl. Aged about 18, her almond eyes, high cheek bones and broad nose are accentuated by the artificial glare of the fluorescent lamp. Her long black hair is pulled back in a tight ponytail, while a slightly pained, almost worried, expression is cast across her fine features.

But where her body should be is a piece of steel gas pipe measuring about 5cm wide and 30cm long, on the end of which the girl's head is precariously balanced. A tattered piece of purple tinsel surrounds her face. Our host beams at the startled audience as he announces questioning can commence.

Someone from the back of the room asks her name as our host dances around the table on which Pipe Girl rests. He waves his arms behind her and underneath the table on which she's perched to prove the absence of, one suspects, her body.

Pipe Girl appears happy to answer our questions, albeit in a soft, almost inaudible, whisper. She confirms her name is Pipe Girl. In her spare time she likes to read and she is looking for a nice boy to marry (preferably one that doesn't live in a pipe). Her friends can be relied on to scratch her nose when it itches and she has several different pipes she can be inserted into depending on the occasion.

As quickly as the show began, the curtain is abruptly pulled shut as it is announced Pipe Girl is tired and needs to rest. The group is herded out and spends the next half-hour standing outside the ramshackle wooden hut debating how a real head can be perched on a pipe without revealing the body. It is decided the illusion, for that is surely what it is, is worthy of magician David Copperfield.

Welcome to China's ageing theme and amusement parks: a conglomeration of the weird, wonderful, bizarre, low-tech and downright intimidating machines, concepts and ideas. China is a developing country with an expanding middle class that have something their parents never had: cash, the time to spend it and an increasing level of sophistication.

Parks like Nanhu, which have entertained families for almost a quarter of a century, no longer cut the mustard with modern-day families and have fallen into disrepair because of changing lifestyles, neglect and corruption. Throw hi-tech parks such as Hong Kong's Disneyland, scheduled to open in September, and Shenzhen's Window on the World into the mix and it's only a matter of time before parks such as Nanhu close their gates forever.

GUANGZHOU DONGFANG Amusement Park set the benchmark for China's theme park industry when it opened in 1985. The sprawling park boasted some of the most advanced entertainment facilities in the country and, in its prime, attracted more than 100,000 visitors a day. It was a major draw for locals and tourists alike, particularly children. Alongside the giant Ferris wheels, water chutes and swing rides were shows highlighting Chinese culture and history. Today, the deserted park tells a different story: an all too familiar tale in the rapid development of China.

The 45-minute taxi trip from the city's main railway station is itself a death defying roller-coaster ride. As the cab hurtles along the main Da Jinzhong highway, in the distance, Dongfang's towering Ferris wheel rises majesticly into the smog-filled air.

Exiting the main drag, the taxi swings through a wide arc before coming to an abrupt stop in front of a long, wide plaza. The only person here at 10.30 on this warm Tuesday morning is a uniformed security guard pacing back and forth. Behind him is the park's entrance: a huge viaduct-like structure with seven arches leading to a row of cracked fibreglass ticket booths and turnstiles. The entrance's peeling, faded fresco features angels, rocketships and roller coasters. Topping the edifice is a giant frieze of five goats representing Guangzhou - City of Lambs.

The guard is suspicious and unforthcoming when presented with requests for information and a sneak peak around the park. His superior appears and holds out his hand towards the camera. 'No filming,' he barks. He reluctantly slinks into the shadows of his concrete gatehouse when it's pointed out the area in front of the park is a public highway.

A sign on the entrance booth informs visitors operations were suspended on September 7, 2004, because 'adjustments are being made because of a joint venture'. It apologises for the inconvenience.

Behind the turnstiles at the end of a long 'high street' bordered by replica Chinese buildings from the

Ming Dynasty is a stage. It was from this stage visitors were entertained by human and animal performers acting out popular Chinese stories and operas.

The only visitors today appear to be staff and security. Two police officers cycle by, chatting animatedly; four middle-aged women carrying rakes amble past; a man in a light grey jacket with dark grey suit trousers rolled to the knee pushes a wheelbarrow.

A young couple, both 23, walk slowly along the length of the plaza. They used to visit this theme park when they were small. 'It used to be very noisy here, with people selling stuff, eating and drinking,' says the young man as he surveys the plaza. Two burly men in leather jackets have appeared, as well as another couple and a woman who is waiting for a lift from her boyfriend. However, security is keeping its distance. The young man is sad the park has closed. He and his girlfriend smile when asked if they'll visit Disney in Hong Kong. 'I don't have that much money,' he laughs.

In 1980, the authorities installed several Japanese-manufactured rides in the Zhongshan public park in Beijing. This was the first 'amusement park' in China. But it wasn't until 1983 that the first dedicated park, the Yangtze River Amusement Park, opened in Guangdong. Since the early 1980s, the country has installed rides in more than 100 public parks and opened 24 private- and government-owned theme and amusement parks.

Zhong Xinfu is an affable man in his mid-50s. On the walls of his otherwise sparsely furnished office in the Shenzhen government's Zhong Chen Sports Building are several conceptual drawings of theme parks and their floor plans. In one corner is a display board of what appears to be various types of construction material in different shapes and colours.

He says Prominent Technology Enterprise, the Hong Kong company he works for, is a private firm but it works closely with the city's Sports Bureau on the development of new parks.

As the vice-director of the China Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, he is also responsible for promoting the industry. Zhong partly blames corruption among local officials for the demise of many of the theme parks. Many were built before China's economic boom and now occupy much sought-after development hot spots. Dongfang, for example, is sitting on 240,000 square metres of prime real estate and is serviced by a major road network.

'Among the old parks, Dongfang had the best portrayal of Chinese culture,' he laments. 'There

was no problem with attendance or profit; it's just that some officials wanted to use the land for something else. So they sold it to a Hong Kong company because it was not making as much money as it would as real estate.'

Of the five state-owned amusement parks that opened in the Pearl River Delta in the mid-80s, all except Nanhu have been sold off or closed. The official policy for Nanhu, says Zhong, is to let it run itself into the ground. 'We have lots of new parks of very high quality, but the government is paying less attention to the older parks,' he says. 'These parks are going down because there is no investment.'

GUANGZHOU NANHU Amusement Park is almost deserted on this smoggy Wednesday afternoon. Of the dozen or so fairground-style stalls just inside the entrance, only three are operating. Jack and David, who are doubling as amusement park stooges on their day off from school, try to win pirated versions of Garfield or Donald Duck soft toys by throwing a ball into a clown's mouth. They fail, but their attempts amuse the four female staff who have gathered around the stall looking for a respite from their boredom.

'You get paid for sitting around and besides, we live nearby,' says one of the girls.

Nanhu is an amusement park of the old style. Today's thrillseekers are looking for themes, visual entertainment and challenges in a clean, modern setting; whereas Nanhu offers thrills and spills of a different kind from dilapidated machinery in a grubby and run-down environment.

The indoor roller-skating rink is dark and dank, with many of its lights broken or missing. It offers more than enough potential for serious bumps and bruises; the log flume dives into a body of brackish, murky water that is reminiscent of a sewage processing plant; an arm is missing off one of the pirates on the badly rusting Pirate Swing Boat; and the large roller coaster is under repair, but you can easily access its platform and peer down a 10-metre drop.

The go-kart track is a picture of apocalyptic mayhem. The shells of battered and broken fibreglass karts litter the grass verges and the tyre safety barriers offer scant protection. David and Jack take their turn around the track at the wheel of a spluttering, badly damaged kart. However, their inability to steer in a straight line and frequent collisions with the sides of the track mean they never pick up enough speed to cause any real damage.

Running ahead of the group, they let out a whoop as they spot a mini dragon-themed roller coaster. The four staff in the booth take their tokens as the boys jump into the first car; with what appear to be fewer than 30 people in the entire park, there is no queueing today. The line of cars move off along the short uphill gradient with some serious clanking and groaning. David and Jack wave animatedly at the slightly concerned adults. With a screech, the cars reach their zenith and with a deafening clatter, whoosh down the other side. David and Jack emerge from a tight bend gripping the handrail of their car, both their faces a replica of Macaulay Culkin in his Home Alone poster.

One short circuit later, they are safely deposited back on terra firma. Jack is the first to speak. 'It was very violent,' he says. David chimes in: 'I closed my eyes because I thought I was going to fall off.' Their experience is telling. For the rest of the day, they eschew all rides, preferring instead to kick around an empty soy milk container as they follow the adults around the park.

Zhong fails to respond directly to questions over park safety and deftly sidesteps the issue. 'We pay a lot of attention to safety measures and every year we thoroughly inspect the new parks,' he insists.

Tang Jun is visiting Nanhu with his wife and young son. It's his wife's birthday, so they have come to the park to celebrate. Earlier, the family had taken a ride on the log flume, laughing and smiling despite being sprayed with the stagnant water. As a child, Tang used to visit this park. 'It's not as much fun because fewer people come now,' he says wistfully.

Another couple relishes the solitude. 'Some people like the quiet and some like the crowds. We like the quiet,' says the man as they amble around the park.

SOME OF CHINA'S theme parks, particularly the privately owned ones, lend to their slow demise the truly bizarre. The oddly named Eastern Divine Comedy Park is anything but. Partly modelled on the famous novel Journey to the West, the park featured walk-in versions of heaven and hell. Today, almost 25 years after the park opened, only hell remains because, according to the man collecting the 20 yuan entry fee, heaven is 'water damaged', leaving one to wonder how long it will take before hell freezes over.

The attraction is located behind Shenzhen's well-planned Donghu Park, along a rough concrete road lined with small stores selling food and car parts and dai pai dongs preparing winter dog meat dishes for lunching truck drivers. Since heaven closed, the ticket seller says fewer people have been attending the park. He blames superstition. He agrees to show us around and stands up from his small desk located directly under a sign that reads 'Welcome to Hell'.

Hell is dark; very dark. And surprisingly chilly. It takes several minutes for your eyes to adjust to the gloom. The ticket seller, who introduces himself as Tang and says he earns 800 yuan a month, has disappeared into a small room. He returns a short time later, accompanied by the sound of howling wind. Occasionally a blood-curdling scream pierces the gloom. He is under instructions to switch on only the sound effects for visitors to save money.

Hell is a labyrinth of fibreglass tunnels and cavernous spaces filled with papier mache dummies in various stages of mutilation and dismemberment. Disembowling is apparently rife in Satan's world, and no gardening tool or giant kitchen utensil is too cumbersome to chop, slice, hack or bludgeon the dummies. The overall effect is unnerving, if unintentional. The screams are hollow and mechanical, the air is dusty and the broken light bulbs add to the poor visibility.

Tang says he is not scared, but it is with some relief (and no small amount of luck considering the poor state of the attraction) we emerge unscathed into the slightly fresher morning air. A group of old men sitting under a tree sunning themselves stare at us as we emerge. One of them is sitting on a paper bag emblazoned with the word Disney. A present from his grandchildren, he says.

BACK AT NANHU Amusement Park, the Yao performers are well into their second show of the day. David and Jack sit attentively in the front row of the open-air bamboo pagoda as the entertainers work through a routine demonstrating the wedding rituals of their community. They have dragged a member of the dozen or so audience onto the stage and have dressed him in a pair of baggy trousers that keep falling down around his ankles. Everyone is laughing, even the policeman and his family sitting in the second row.

The finale features a man standing in bare feet on the upturned blades of four choppers. Adding to the suspense, he carries a bucket of water in each hand and one in his mouth. At the end of the show, he leaps from the blades and displays the undamaged soles of his feet to a stunned audience. He bows elaborately to the motley crowd and disappears with a warning: 'Don't try this at home.'

Additional reporting by Yi Hu.