Carved in stone, Martin Luther King's dream will be heard by Chinese ears

Curtis Chin hopes Martin Luther King's dream will resonate with visitors to his memorial

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 August, 2013, 3:20am

On my last trips to Hong Kong and Singapore, everyone seemed to have an anecdote or a complaint about mainland Chinese tourists. Subways were too crowded. Real estate prices were skyrocketing. Designer boutiques were ignoring local shoppers in favour of poorly behaving, but renminbi-wielding visitors. Some seemed to take on the status of urban myth.

There is no question, though, that mainland Chinese tourists are making their presence felt as never before, including in the US. One new Washington memorial honouring Martin Luther King Jnr may well offer a different type of souvenir - more message than memento - to the growing number of Chinese travellers.

That would be welcome news. According to the UN World Tourism Organisation, Chinese tourists made some 83 million international trips in 2012 - up from 10 million in 2000 - and are increasingly becoming the biggest spenders from Asia. Rising living standards and changing visa rules have provided the chance for numerous mainland Chinese travellers to explore a world that was long inaccessible to them.

For international travellers to Washington this month, the name Martin Luther King Jnr is likely to be of particular interest as the US commemorates the 50th anniversary of his historic "I Have a Dream" speech. That speech - delivered to more than 250,000 people on August 28 from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the landmark 1963 "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom" - was a defining moment of the American civil rights movement.

His is a name Chinese students of world history should know. But how about the name Lei Yixin? Lei is the Hunan sculptor who was chosen, not without controversy, to create the 10-metre-high stone statue of the late civil rights leader that stands at the centre of a US$120 million Martin Luther King Jnr Memorial in Washington that opened two years ago. Lei has been back in the news as repairs, under Lei's watchful eyes, have been made to a contentious phrase carved into the stone memorial.

How fitting it would be if Lei's sculpture were to help bring the late civil rights leader's messages of equality, social justice and empowerment to the growing number of Chinese tourists, and their fellow citizens and leaders, as they pursue the "Chinese dream".

Whether in Atlanta or Beijing, King's messages have relevance today for citizens struggling for greater economic freedom and opportunity. Let's hope King's message of peace and empowerment can become a souvenir brought back to Asia and the Pacific by all visitors to the US, whether Chinese or not.

Curtis S. Chin is a managing director with advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC, and served as US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank from 2007 to 2010