Beijing World Park (Běijīng Shìjiè Gōngyuán; 北京世界公园) is one of a number of Asian theme parks that attempt to represent the world to the visitor. As such, a tour of this place is not only a tour around a corner of Beijing, it is also, in miniature, a tour of the world through its iconic tourist attractions.
The front entrance has distinct echoes of Disney, which itself was modeled on some of the sites that await the visitor inside the park, such as Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria. The references are jumbled but the effect is fine: it looks historic and Western. There's a further bit of history here too, I visited during the national day holidays which marked the 65th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China. Visitor numbers were up because of the holidays and good weather but still the place was far from packed: World Park is a 2nd tier Beijing attraction located in the South West suburbs and doesn't have the pull (and crowds) of The Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square or Great Wall.
The audio tour turned out to be broken and the machines were at the factory getting repaired. There were no guides offering tours and the only alternative was a land train that wizzed you round or an overly fancy horse drawn carriage designed to dazzle from a distance. Walking seemed like the best option and this quickly brought me to a Thai Elephant and Crocodile Show. The Thai angle seemed to me slight, it is a type of show that is apparently popular with tourists visiting Thailand... and more to the point, with tourists in Beijing too. This show was the start of a tour then, that was not so much a tour of the world in all its raw vastness but rather a tour of the world's tourist traps and popular attractions.
I had never seen an elephant show before and found myself warming to it when I put aside the question of the animal's welfare. The elephants managed to do all manner of tricks like kicking footballs and dancing to The Macarena. Around the side of the arena this man pushed a cart of bananas which he sold to the public. At certain points the elephants would approach the seating and those with bananas could feed them. This was a smart way of making a bit of extra money out of something that would happen anyway. Indeed there were quite a number of ways the show managed to make extra money: children were lifted up high in the elephant's trunks for photo opportunities, there were live photos for a price with the crocodiles too, which struck me as playing with fire.
With the animal show over a new entertainment in the adjacent arena began. This was a dance show that I have never seen anything quite the like of before. They attempted to show the world through dance. They began with a Brazilian carnival display and moved onto a Spanish fiesta, an American Indian ritual and fire dance, a ballet cum acrobatics turn, an Indian Bollywood number and so on. At this point they arrived at Egypt with a pharaoh striding out of the set in the background followed by this team in blue and white. When the veil flew off this turned into a belly dance routine collapsing ancient and modern Middle East into one. The dancing was often far from good but that only added to the thrill of seeing this novel and slightly bad taste spectacle unfold. I wouldn't be able to see something quite as blunt as this in the UK, there would be too many objections from the people it depicts. Not here, they really went for it and gave their best shot at doing each of these dances in turn.
This immediately brought to mind the film The World (2004) of Jia Zhangke (贾樟柯) as it is set in this same very park and begins with a scene featuring dancers doing routines very similar to what I saw. The film shows a backstory to this spectacle and the human cost of contemporary Chinese development. It is well worth watching and it hovered over the place as a parallel and darker narrative throughout my tour of the park.
The apex for me was when we got to Chinese Riverdance. I had been warmed up already and this was an icing on the cake moment. It might be because culturally speaking, Irish dance is more known to me than most of the other things I had seen so far, so there was the amusement of having the familiar made strange and not to say, slightly naff. All of the different routines were, in a way, familiar in the sense that they all belonged to the imagery of big spectacles. This was like a low-budget Olympic opening ceremony showcasing not just the host nation's dances but those of the whole world. I'm going to have to let this experience settle a little but I suspect there is an avant-garde remake of this lurking in the depths of the imagination.
The section behind me is called Grand Canyon and I am standing on a model Golden Gate Bridge. Yes, this is America. The big country made small. Alongside the sites there are stalls selling food and souvenirs and I was hoping that these would reflect the locations they were paired with but sadly not. I think it was a missed opportunity. That said, a McDonalds would be of little interest to me as I don't eat meat and when I come to think about it, the food is only part of the ambiance, the people are what really make a place feel located. Installing some representative Americans in a McDonalds who would eat and talk in an authentic way would be tricky as they would rapidly balloon in weight more or less replicating the documentary Super Size Me. Similarly, having a British drunk sitting under the model Tower Bridge drinking super strength lager would give it a more authentic edge but this feeling of being in the location is not what's really called for here. The point is to condense the world into a series of photo opportunities.
The park shows its age by retaining the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in its Manhattan section. I suppose it would hardly do to knock them down in solidarity with the real ones following the 9/11 attacks but standing there today they stick out like a sore thumb. It is ironic that these towers are probably the most contemporary buildings that are featured in the entire park and they are also the only ones that no longer exist in reality but only as these scale models.
Having recently covered Stonehenge I was amused to find a scaled down version of it here in the park that was serving as a playground. I read that in 2008 World Park was one of the three officially designated protest sites and I tried to imagine a Free Tibet rally taking place on this Stonehenge model. I think the official who came up with the idea of making this one of the protest sites must have had a sharp sense of humor.
Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria was one of the spots favoured by the many wedding photographers that were operating in the park. When researching Chinese coach tours of Europe for the Stuttgart Tour of All Tours I noticed that this castle was a point on most tour itineraries. That may be because not only is it iconic but it is also well located for transport routes, but nonetheless it is quite probably the most well known castle in Europe to Chinese tourists. Wedding photography is a boom industry and no standard wedding is complete without some fancy images such as these. Somehow the preferred spots for these photographs are not the sites of the ceremony itself but are instead tourist locations at home and even abroad where the pictures are taken some time before the wedding day. In this way the tourist imagination spreads into all sorts of areas beyond the strict preserve of the holiday itself.
Hello Brussels! The man who stood here after me underneath the Mannekin Pis managed to take a photo that would not have been possible at the real fountain as it is surrounded by a fence and some way up on a wall. Standing on the far side of the fountain he squeezed his finger and thumb around the little statue's willy. It is probably for the best that the fence exists in Brussels.
I read that Chinese tourists are increasingly suffering from the affliction Paris Syndrome which was previously reserved to Japanese tourists only. Put simply it is a psychological condition brought about in a small number of visitors who arrive in the City of Light and find it far from the city of their dreams provoking, in some, a state of mental collapse. No such problems here in World Park! You can stay well and truly in a Chinese bubble where no rude waiters or pickpockets are going to puncture the dream. Even if the visitor does encounter a problem it is a Chinese problem that does not touch Paris, which exists in another world above and beyond that of raucous Chinese children or pushy groups muscling you out of the way.
Dressing up in period costumes for photographs is a bit of a thing at tourist spots in China and this normally means classical Chinese costumes. A few days ago a woman running one such stall in a park suggested I put on her emperor's costume and the incongruity of it nearly persuaded me to do it but sadly for her I thought twice and thought better of it. This being World Park the costumes are not just classical Chinese, they are Westerners' outfits like this dress here. Whether or not it really fits with St Peter's Square in The Vatican is beside the point, that's a technicality for historians of costume. It's all about dreams created by the movies and media and in this corner of Beijing it's possible to touch those dreams and have a little piece of them for yourself.
Of all the sites I saw the most singularly underwhelming of them was The Pyramids. The real Egyptian structure is impressive, I am guessing, on account of its size, age and location. Here however, it was reduced to the size of a house, dates from 1993 when the park opened, and is in a nondescript suburb of Beijing. Of the five continents represented, Africa and Oceania were the least prominent with Europe being the most featured.
Finally there was a corner of the park that depicted China. There was a copy of the Great Wall but then there was also this garden which was one of the more tasteful areas as it did not try to copy a famous site and end up scaling it down. My enduring feeling about the park is that it lacks ambition to be anything more than a mass tourist attraction. It succeeds in this basic function but I felt it could also potentially serve as an educational site helping to introduce Chinese people to other cultures in a more than superficial way. I also have the feeling that I will one day have to make a tour performance for a site such as this as they have such enormous potential to serve as art locations so loaded are they with symbols and histories. I suspect that will come at a later point once I've been to a few more of the iconic sites themselves and made studies and performances of my own with them. That said, if someone turned around tomorrow and offered this as a set to play with I'd jump at the chance. Beijing World Park is a gift to the experimental tourist.
Bill Aitchison is an artist and writer from Britain who has shown his work in galleries, theatres, festivals in Europe, Asia, America and The Middle East. He has a special interest in travel writing and in tours and he has created a number of highly acclaimed tours that arts events around the world. He holds a PhD from the University of London, has published in several countries, has worked in radio and is associate research fellow at Birkbeck College, University of London.