Monday, June 15, 2015

A Visit to Foreigners' Street in Chongqing: Part 1, The Entrance to a Land of No Themes

One day earlier this year while visiting an ancient town in Chongqing, I briefly met a college student. After discussing severing interesting places to see elsewhere in Chongqing, she recommended I visit Foreigners' Street. I asked her what made it so popular with foreigners.

She replied, "Oh, there aren't many foreigners there. Maybe a few."

Confused, I asked, "Then why do they call it 'Foreigners' Street'?"

She explained it had originally been planned as a place where foreigners could open restaurants, bars, and other businesses. But things didn't pan out. She struggled to describe what it had become instead but maintained I should visit it.

As I now know, the place is indeed difficult to describe. Richard Macauley wrote about Foreigners' Street, also know as Yangren Jie, for CNN Travel:
Opened in 2006, it includes all the best of what ain’t from China.

Recreations of international landmarks are dotted about, including a miniature New York, Venetian canals, a 10-meter Christ the Redeemer, a 150-meter-long Great Wall of China (not foreign, but it made the cut) and, from Thailand, an exotic dance show.

Yangren Jie is also known for hosting the largest public bathroom in the world, which checks in at 40,000 square meters.

The park is overly kitschy, which either adds to or detracts from the fun, depending on your point of view.
The full piece is worth reading for the varied opinions Macauley collected from visitors. It is one of those places most enjoyed when appreciated for what it is, whatever that may be.

Multiple English translations for the Chinese name of the park, 美心洋人街 , are in use. "Foreigners' Street" seems to be favored by the park itself, though often "Mexin" is placed at the front. Those familiar with Chinese may now be thinking, "You mean 'Meixin', right?". While I agree that would be the correct Pinyin spelling of the first two Chinese characters, the park consistently uses "Mexin". Like with many other things about the park, I don't know why. Anyway, I leave out the word "Mexin", which appears to be common practice for English accounts in both foreign and Chinese sources.

My single visit in January isn't enough to provide a definitive account of Foreigners' Street. At the very least, I wasn't able to see everything. But I can provide a taste of the wonders it holds by sharing what I saw. My account may seem irreverent at times, but deep reverence appears to have no place at Foreigners' Street.

So here we go . . .

To start, the location is not especially convenient to get to from the most urban areas of Chongqing. I can imagine foreigners long ago strongly questioning the logic of opening a business there. But Foreigners' Street lures in the crowds nonetheless.

Upon arrival near the main entrance, my attention was caught by a large structure connected to an apartment complex.

theater-like entrance to an apartment complex

Not sure what to expect, I walked inside and discovered a rather large open space.

large area underneath the apartment complexes

A variety of activities were ongoing, including some spirited mahjong games.

people standing while playing mahjong in the large indoor area like a large parking lot

For those needing nourishment, some food was available. And not only could you buy baked goods, you could also watch the baking process.

bakery inside a large open building

Despite the signs, I didn't see any Gun Night Beer available at the time though.

sign with words "A Gun Night Beer"

Back outside, I saw there was chairlift / cable car ride to transport people, presumably into the heart of the park.

end point of an aerial lift at Foreigner's Street

5 yuan (about 80 cents U.S.) seemed like a great deal compared to similar rides I had seen elsewhere. And it isn't every day you can ride an aerial lift through a building.

aerial lift going through a building

The line for the lift divided people into the "bold" and the "timid". The bold rode in open chairs. The timid rode in enclosed cars. The extremely timid turned around.

entrance sign indicating lines for "Bold people can sit" and "Timed ride can sit"

On the side of stairs up to the lift, I saw signs declaring "imported". I would have translated the Chinese as "entrance", but "imported" would be appropriate in some contexts and this is Foreigners' Street after all.

line up stairs with signs saying "Imported"

For reasons not related to my boldness, I decided to walk into the park and save the lift for my departure. But first I wanted something to eat. Fortunately, several food vendors were nearby and eager for customers.

street food vendors

I chose one of my favorites, a local style of spicy potatoes.

Chongqing style spicy potatoes

I then passed by the majestic multi-purpose building once more, this time appreciating the outdoor rockers. Some of the people rocking appeared to appreciate my appreciation.

people on several rockers

And finally, I stood at the main entrance to the park. Lest there be any doubt about its theme, a prominent sign proclaimed there wasn't one.

entrance sign for Foreigners' Street (美心洋人街) with the words "NON THEME PARK"

I wondered how a park named "Foreigners' Street" could claim not to have a theme. I then pondered the apparent paradox of a lack of theme being a theme itself. I hadn't even entered the park, and already things felt slightly surreal. This feeling did not go away.

In later posts, this themed themeless adventure will continue.

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