By Tong Lam
Since the 1990s, the Chinese government has begun to try to boost the domestic economy by encouraging citizens to spend more on non-essential items. As part of this initiative to forge a consumer society, the Saturday-Sunday two-day weekend was introduced in 1995. By the end of the decade, the government even began to rearrange weekends around major public holidays such as the Lunar New Year festival, Labor Day in May, and National Day in October so that weeklong holidays, commonly known as Golden Weeks, were created.
However, China’s rising middle class was still relatively small in the 1990s, and urban citizens did not have the resources to travel abroad. Even domestic tourism was often confined to travels within one’s own region. At the same time, after decades of living in a closed socialist economy, the Chinese desire for foreign things and experiences was stronger than ever before. Amusement parks featuring foreign cultures and buildings emerged as popular places for members of the middle class to go to spend their newly acquired wealth and increased leisure time.
In spite of the growing demand for theme-based entertainment, many attractions failed due to overdevelopment and overinvestment — itself a characteristic of capitalism. For example, investors once planned to build the largest amusement park in Asia, which was to be called “The Wonderland” and located on the outskirts of Beijing.
Because of the Asian Financial Crisis of the late 1990s, however, as well as land disputes between the developer and the local villagers, the park was never completed. When the by then abandoned theme park was demolished in early 2013, the haunting, unfinished castle and other skeletal buildings stood as monuments of China’s first major encounter with global financial crises in the post-socialist era.
Meanwhile, even though many well-heeled Chinese consumers now flock to major foreign countries to shop, the appetite for theme-based entertainment among China’s steadily expanding middle class remains strong. In recent years, the theme park industry has become even more competitive. In addition to theme parks showcasing foreign cultures, there are also amusement venues that make use of characters and settings tied to ancient Chinese folklore, martial art fiction, video games, and so on. In addition, the Disney Resort in Shanghai is set to open in 2015. Not surprisingly, the fast changing theme park scene has driven out many older, smaller theme park establishments left over from the previous era. The abandoned but once popular theme park at the edge of Chengdu in Sichuan Province is one such story.
Indeed, not unlike the newest theme parks, the ruins of old or unfinished theme parks also open an illuminating window onto China’s changing consumer desires, real estate market, and tourism trends.
Tong Lam. Abandoned Futures: A Journey to the Posthuman World. (Carpet Bombing Culture, 2013)
Bianca Bosker. Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China. (University of Hawaii Press, 2013)—recently reviewed in the LARB here.