The white form of Christ the Redeemer, standing considerably shorter than his Brazilian counterpart, spun in slow motion atop a yellow pedestal on an orange, artificial mountain. Candy-colored gondolas bobbed gently above the Christ’s outstretched, beseeching arms. A waterslide, painted blue and rimmed with green, snaked down the side of the mountain. The scent of cumin-flavored lamb skewers hung in the air. Off in the distance I could see an ersatz Egyptian pyramid; the white and shining spire of a Western-style church; and the Guinness World Records-certified world’s largest public bathroom. Beyond the attractions, across the wide brown expanse of the Yangtze River, rose the green and hazy hills of Chongqing, dotted with white apartment buildings still under construction.
I was at an international themed Chinese amusement park, and it was exactly as weird as I’d expected it to be.
I had decided to visit China’s low-budget answer to Epcot Center with the aspirational hope that it would show me how the Chinese see the rest of the world. I also wanted to take a whole bunch of weird photographs for the benefit of the Internet. Meixin Yangren Jie—or Foreigners’ Street—as the amusement park is known, didn’t disappoint on either count.
Arms outstretched, beseeching. Photo: Faine Greenwood
Yangren Jie, which first opened in 2006, was conceived of as a classy walking street catering towards expatriates and the locals who wanted to interact with them, or at least take a good long look. Foreigners’ Street, in this optimistic vision, would be equipped with exotic restaurants, bars, and shops, operated with a certain level of exotic flair by members of Chongqing’s then 5,000+ strong foreign population. This did not pan out.
Sure, some expatriates did sign on to the Foreigners’ Street scheme in those heady, early days: An American named Clifford Yasay reportedly opened Chongqing’s first sports bar, while an Ethiopian woman is said to have sold coffee at a concession. There may have been a couple of Australians selling tea.
The foreigners and their businesses had all fled
No longer. By the time I visited Meixin Foreigners’ Street in the summer of 2014, the foreigners and their businesses had all fled, and there was nowhere to get a cheeseburger, or even one of those unfortunate Australian pies. The reasons behind the unfortunate lack of foreigners at Meixin Foreigners’ Street remained unclear—maybe a breakdown between investors and workers, or the distasteful aspects of being featured in a human zoo, or the park’s distant location.
Deprived of their foreign population, the owners punted, taking advantage of Chongqing’s limited palette of attractions. They opened the World’s Largest Public Bathroom, a multi-building themed edifice meant to give the park a certain international status. They added more amusement park rides, stuck to their free-entry policy, and stationed vendors selling familiar Chinese snacks throughout the grounds. They even attempted to add a sex-themed, separate amusement park next door, before horrified city officials quashed the plan.
And now I was here, the only actual foreigner in an entire theme park supposedly devoted to… me. I hoped no one expected me to do anything amusing.
To reach Meixin Foreigners’ Street from my hotel in Chongqing’s center, I’d taken a gondola across the Yangtze and then a taxi, which threaded through the city’s relatively quiet Nan’an District. Upon arrival, I walked up the steepish hill to the entrance, where I was immediately greeted with a circular UFO (slightly leaning to the left), with a gold alien and two silver companions peering curiously out of it. The aliens loomed above a covered pavilion where six irritated looking ponies were waiting to be ridden, and where a man was selling stinky tofu and luridly colored blue soft drinks to visitors. The tone, I realized, had already been set. I got out my camera.