People, fun and politics clash at a Communist-owned theme park in Florida.
BY TIM WILSON
WHEN THE ENRAGED WOMAN BEGAN shouting at the wicked boy from the other side of the Imperial Palace/Forbidden City exhibit, my afternoon made an abrupt but pleasing lurch away from the thrills normally found in a Florida theme park. Suddenly I felt a little more Chinese, and a little more dictated to by the proletariat.
Until then, I had suffered an educative but enervating tour of Splendid China, which is located in Orlando, Florida, just down the road from Walt Disney World. The park is based on the novel, if debatable, proposition that the miniaturised wonders of Chinese history will give Mickey and Goofy a run for their money. So, you have sites such as the Imperial Palace/Forbidden City or the Temple of Heaven rendered to 1/15th scale. You have a Great Wall that doesn't reach the average adult's knee. These exhibits are populated with 10,000 clay figurines of peasants, horsemen and guards. Invert the saccharine internationalism of "It's a Small World After All", apply the chorus literally, and you have the gist.
The kid had walked into an enclosure to point his video camera at the figurines therein. True, he was breaking a law of Splendid China. A nearby sign forbade such behaviour in the Forbidden City, with good reason, perhaps. The preponderance of small, headless clay horsemen and guards suggests that American feet are powerful and cloddish.
The boy's mother approved this childish invasion, but on the other side of the exhibit, it sent a Chinese woman in late middle-age off the deep end. She began shouting. Pacified by Mom, the boy ignored her. This provoked further paroxysms from the woman. She then pulled up her camera and began to snap what I assume were "evidential photos" to produce to park managers.
Oh crap, I thought, this is when the real entertainment will appear, a troop of 1/15th-sized Red Guards to denounce us, a tiny Gang of Four to save our bacon, and a microscopic Deng Xaio Ping impersonator to deal to the Gang of Four.
The woman waddled over. "Here she comes to smack the tar out of you," murmured the boy's father. The boy had now vacated the Forbidden Area.
"I never see a family like this!" exclaimed the woman. "I been here [in the US] 30 years and I worry about moral! This is a part of our country! We have to protect ourselves!"
(Sorry about the exclamation marks but she was apoplectic.)
The mother, who towered over her, absorbed this, then said, menacingly, "You should go away now."
The angry woman examined her aggressor. An exchange of unspoken but deep hatred passed between them.
"Mom," said the kid.
The angry woman retreated, still scolding, "Listen to your son! Listen to your son!"
A guide came past, with a collection of people in tow. "And over here," he said, "is Tiananmen Square. Positive and negative things happened there."
I DIDN'T EXPECT a near fist fight in a park loaded with static models and in which the gift shop plays a version of "Memories" executed (I don't use the word lightly) by traditional Chinese instruments. But then Splendid China has been host to controversy since it opened in 1993. Numerous protests have been held inside and outside its walls. Enough Chinese acrobats and musicians to support a travelling troupe have defected from there. Three years ago, the Far Eastern Economic Review reported that the place was losing $9million per year, provoking the obligatory headlines about going into the red. Then-chief executive Sonny Yang tried to sell the park. That deal folded inexplicably, Yang was relieved of his position and at last report was under house arrest in the Mainland.
Blame history. Our world may be small, but in the past China has tried to make it smaller. So, at the back of Splendid China, you will find the Potala Palace, a replica of the Dalai Lama's winter residence and one-time home of the Tibetan Government. Given that the most notable contact the Chinese have had with the palace was when they shelled the original in 1959, the exhibit is Splendid China's most contentious. Protestors insist it more correctly belongs in another park, perhaps one called "Splendid Free Tibet". Splendid China, they say, is owned by China Travel Services, and is a tentacle of the Chinese Government. They cite documents to prove their case.
"It's obviously a propaganda theme park," says Jack Churchward, a representative of the Campaign Against Communist Propaganda (or, to use its Maoist-sounding acronym, the CACP). "They're not making money, but they won't close; it's a matter of pride for them."
Al Riley, Splendid China's spokesperson, denies that the Chinese Government subsidises the park. Jokingly, he says that he wishes this were the case, before insisting that Splendid China is not losing money. He says that the Far Eastern Economic Review's figure of $9 million in annual losses came out seven years ago. Um, no Al, it was three years ago.
Riley admits to a signage problem with the Potala Palace when the park opened, but the accompanying sign now mentions Tibet. Does it mention the Chinese invasion of Tibet? "It's just a theme park!" he says.
He disputes the CACP's historical critiques of other exhibits. The Chinese, Riley says, recognise him as one of the leading experts on Chinese history living outside China. His credentials, he adds, are reinforced by the teaching he does for Stetson University. Yes, Stetson University.
The above may be summarised thus: I'm having a little trouble recalling the positive things that happened in Tiananmen Square.
Yet, recalling my walk around Splendid China, this open-and-shut case sprang open. I inclined emotionally to Riley's argument, that is, I felt protective. The place was falling to bits. Spider webs laced the pagodas. Some of the signs were crudely hand-lettered. The lake of the Summer Palace was decorated with algae, and leaves were strewn though the Temple of Confucius's courtyard. In Grotto #257, wallpaper was peeling from the wall. And, as the angry woman at the Forbidden City was implying to the naughty boy and his mother, so many of the little figures seemed to have undergone concerted attack.
This exhaustion was somehow soothing and, considering the orgiastic experiences that Disney offers nearby, almost poetic. Senior citizens in particular seemed to like melancholic - rather than Splendid - China. You would think that a combination of Communist spin and dilapidation wouldn't be their bag, but there they were, cheerfully huffing and puffing around the walkways like steam locomotives. US writer John Earth's meditation on fiction and adolescent love Welcome to the Funhouse begins, "For whom is the Funhouse fun?" A better question now might be, "What makes the Funhouse the Funhouse?"
THE ECOLOGIST RECENTLY reported that protected rainforest in Transylvania is about to be bowled to make way for a Dracula theme park. Last November, the mullahs opened the US Embassy in Teheran to the public with an exhibition called Shattering the Glass Palace - Glass Palace being a reference to the White House. No, it's not a theme park, but it's as close as mullahs come, and games were an integral part of the experience. Visitors were encouraged to throw tennis balls into the mouth of a devilish Uncle Sam. Another display had a sign that exhorted Iranians to "pound with all your strength on the US head".
While living in Japan some years ago, I visited two theme parks, one of which was called the New Zealand Farm. Being a New Zealander, I approached with some trepidation. The farm featured sheep and cows, a mixture of agriculture and tedium that, correctly, favoured the latter. The Edo Theme Park, on the other hand, was based around the punishments meted out to those who broke the rigid social codes of Edo-era Japan. Customers wandered past scenes where, behind glass, full-sized robot models in period costume beat or flayed robot victims. Each time one was struck, it uttered a prerecorded squeal of pain that, loosely translated, said to the audience, "You're so lucky that you're alive now."
Any form of organised relaxation defines who those partaking think they are, or were, and what they pine for. If Splendid China is part of a propaganda push, it suggests that capitalism's ideological enemies recognise as well as a Disney executive how omnivorous fun has become. It can now gobble up anguish and vampirism, farming and xenophobia with equal alacrity.
Splendid China may be a 30-hectare fib, but it's one so poorly maintained that any totalitarian overtones are domesticated. That's insidious, because China, being tyrannical, is about the suppression of minorities and rights at any cost. The CACP's Jack Churchward has said that when he was protesting at the park in 1993, a visiting Chinese dignitary asked the China Travel Services chairman to have police remove the protestors. Told that this was not possible, the dignitary asked park security to have them killed.
I try to keep that anecdote in mind when considering the propaganda/ history disputes at Splendid China.