Variations on a theme park
Here you can find China's largest public toilet - within faux Romanesque architecture, no less - next to an imitation of San Francisco's Lombard Street. A growling devil stares down at the well-trodden lovers' walk. And there is an honour-vending system selling bottled water and pocket tissues that suffers few cheats.
Welcome to Foreigners' Street, or Yangrenjie, in Chongqing, the largest, and perhaps only, non-theme park in the country.
For many locals, this is an amusement park for cheap thrills. Brides-to-be and wannabes can pose in rented wedding gowns before a smorgasbord of exotic-locale backdrops. For couples, there is a make-believe medieval church in which to exchange vows, and a banquet hall the size of a football pitch in which to host a lavish feast.
'It's up to the visitors to decide what the theme of their visit is. We try to be all things to all people,' says Lu Xiaoqing, director of planning for Mexin Industry, the home-grown conglomerate that designed and built the park. 'Most parks out there are bound by our nation's deep-rooted cultural and mental habits going back thousands of years. We want to break free of them.'
Lu, with his slightly wrinkled grey-blue suit and slick, thinning hair, may seem an unlikely maverick. Yet he takes great pride in every detail of the park, including the unorthodox slogans such as, 'Arson is human nature. Arson can be an enjoyment', which is emblazoned on a fake storefront, down the hill from Lombard Street, advertising 'matchboxes that sell out the little boy'.
'Some visitors find our slogans meaningful,' Lu is quick to add.
The park, which opened in September 2005, with a jumble of carousels, roller coasters and bumper cars scattered across gentle hills overlooking the Yangtze River, is reminiscent of the now-defunct Lai Chi Kok amusement park, or even Ocean Park in the early 1980s. Throw in the go-karts, horseback riding and faux-Song-dynasty landscape, and it makes for a dizzying mix.
It is no place for high heels, only hiking boots; rugged paths lead to the Romanesque toilet and the cartoonish Gold Mountain taprooms, which are angled like post-quake remnants.
To hear Lu tell it, there is method to this seeming madness: 'Since there is no way we can copy everything wholesale, say from Disneyland, we decided on this random, hodgepodge approach.'
Indeed, the park could be seen as a metaphor for the contradictions of contemporary China. On Foreigners' Street, commercialism walks hand-in-hand with proletarianism. It's a place where Dale Carnegie and Lei Feng co-exist. To preserve the self-esteem of the poorest park-goers, the management hangs banners announcing free or cheap deals near the entrance. Lunch for the first 100 visitors is on the house. A horse-drawn carriage ride, a steamed bun or a half-foot-long baguette can be had for only one yuan (HK$1.22).
However, the glide ride, which takes visitors from the 'Great Wall' to 'San Francisco' in seconds, costs 15 yuan; pretty steep considering the average bus fare in Chongqing is two yuan.
A dilapidated wooden shack dressed up as a shrine for who-knows-what is covered with scrawls from visitors declaring their undying love and friendship. Cheap copper padlocks are marketed as the unbreakable tie that binds besotted hearts. (In case the starry-eyed lovers need a dose of reality, the banquet hall has a slogan proclaiming: 'If you want to hear the truth, get hitched.')
The management, true to its efforts to make it a park of the people and for the people, even had it renamed by the people. Originally Mexin Yangtze Scenic District, that name was dropped in 2007 in favour of the local nickname, 'Foreigners' Street', which was reportedly adopted in recognition of a swarm of non-Chinese who had been tempted to set up business inside the park by leases that were rent-free for the first three years. Today, the more visible aliens of Foreigners' Street are an Ethiopian dance troupe and a handful of Indian pastry chefs.
'It's easy to do business here,' says Govind Singh, while flipping a banana-stuffed roti on his grill.
It hasn't always been plain sailing for the management, though; early on, Mexin had problems with the honour-vending system for bottled water and tissue packs. Half of the goods were swiped by visitors who did not drop money into the cash box as instructed. Eventually, though, the management's faith in human decency paid off; the collection rate now hovers near 100 per cent.
The park venture has paid off more handsomely in other ways. A few years ago, the luxury residential developments planned by Mexin near the park were considered out of the way as they sat on the sprawling city's northeastern fringe, on the south bank of the Yangtze. With Foreigners' Street having emerged as a tourist destination, the area is now being served by as many as five city bus routes. Along the routes, passengers are wowed by the gilded fountain-heads of a Sheraton hotel.
'We came up with this innovative idea - to use tourism to promote real estate,' Lu says. 'And we've more than earned our money back.'
The market value of the residential complexes developed by Mexin has since jumped from 600,000 yuan to upwards of 10 million yuan per mu (about 7,000 sq ft).
The park itself has been turning a profit since 2008, its third year of operation. On the mainland, seven out of 10 theme parks fail within two years, but Foreigners' Street is still thriving in its seventh year. More than 1.5 million people, predominantly Chongqing locals, visit the park annually. For at least one local, however, 'the sense of novelty has worn off somewhat'.
Medical student Deng Ziting, 24, says: 'I think there's a good bit of imagination involved; the West might not look like this.'
Lu remains optimistic. Mexin aims to take its amusement park-cum-residential development overseas. Plans are afoot for sites in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, and Los Angeles.
'For us, the park is Chongqing's window on the world and Chongqing's gateway to reach out globally,' Lu says. 'That's why we enjoy going to Hong Kong. Once there, we think we're already in the West.'
Getting there: Cathay Pacific (www.cathaypacific.com), Dragonair (www.dragonair. com), Air China (www.airchina.com) and Hong Kong Airlines (www.hkairlines.com) all fly between Hong Kong and Chongqing Jiangbei International Airport. The taxi ride from the airport to Yangrenjie should cost no more than HK$100*. There are also five bus services from Chongqing to the theme park.