Disney with Chinese Characteristics: The Theme Park and Ultra-Rapid Urbanization

The World explores the intersection between the circuits of labour, tourism and urbanization in twenty-first-century China. The theme park is an architectural site in which these circuits intersect and the film visualizes these complex interactions. The film follows the lives of two characters who work in the World Park, Tao (Zhao Tao) and her boyfriend Taisheng (Chen Taisheng), migrant labourers who have travelled to Beijing from the provinces. China has the largest internal labour migration in the world with millions of workers travelling across the country every year. They are known as the liudong renkou or floating labour population.2 As Li Zhang notes, these labourers arrive in cities with almost nothing and, as shown in the film, are often employed in low-skilled jobs such as construction or in the growing service industry.5 Their lives are defined by the notion of chuqu, which Leslie T. Chang translates as the desire to ‘go out.’4 Jia has been described as a ‘cinematic migrant worker’ (dianying mingong} because of his focus on the lives of the floating labourers of China. But, this film is his first work made outside of his home province of Shanxi: he, too, is irresistibly drawn to the mega-city of Beijing. Jia’s first three films (Pickpocket (1997), Platform (2000) and Unknown Pleasures (2002)), known as the ‘Hometown Trilogy,’ tracked the people and places left behind by the economic expansion that had overtaken China since Deng Xiaoping’s economic liberalization of the 1980s. Shanxi, situated in the region of North China, has a lower GDP than the rest of the country, and its major industry is the notoriously dangerous coal mines. For the young characters of The World, the city offers the possibility of escape, but as the film shows, it, too, is a site of danger and exploitation.

The World links the circulation of bodies for labour to another prominent mode of circulation in post-socialist China, that of the tourism industry. China has the largest internal tourism industry in the world. In his 1979 Huang Shan speech, Deng Xiaoping singled out tourism as a significant area for expansion in the process of economic liberalization.1 A famous image shows Deng standing on Huang Shan (Yellow Mountain), smiling with his trousers rolled up. Here the leader becomes a tourist, encouraging the people to do the same.6 As Luk Tak-chuen notes, tourism had to be industrialized (chanyehuaf as a means of stimulating economic development and improving local infrastructure.' While tourism began around sites of national historical significance (such as the Imperial City), or sites of famed natural beauty (like Huang Shan), theme parks soon became a popular way to capitalize on and attract China’s growing middle class.8 These parks combine visual attractions, like the replica buildings in the World Park, with entertainment spectacles, such as the extended dance sequences or parades Jia shows in the film. The parks also rely on the cheap labour made available by China’s floating population and are part of the rapid growth of the Chinese service industry.

In The World, the boundary between the theme park and the city is indiscernible. Theme parks have been part of the ultra-rapid urbanization, which has swept through China since Deng’s economic liberalization beginning in 1979. In The World, the theme park allegorizes the growth of Chinese cities in general, but it is also an element in the growth of these cities. As Shien Zhong notes, ‘the practice of developing theme parks that bind tourism and real estate in urban settings is preferred by property developers [and] local government ... adding substantial value to the land and boosting rapid urbanization.’9 The architecture of the park is merely one element in the surreal architecture of the post-socialist city. The copycat approach to architecture, exemplified in the World Park, has been the template for the building of entire zones which mimic famous European cities. There is a Chinese Venice (Dalian), an Austrian village called Hallstatt (Luoyong), the British themed Thames Town (Sonjiang) and, most famously, a deserted Paris (Tianchudeng).10 Rather than reading these architectural forms as mere copies, they should be understood as visualizing a particularly Chinese form of globalism. As Bianca Bosker argues, these cities do not simply replicate the originals, but improve upon them, by creating a new model or map of the world in which the entire earth is contained inside the larger structure of China.11

Academic analyses of The World narrowly interpret the film as a critique of globalization, focusing on the film’s title and the park’s caricatural approach to nation and ethnicity.12 I argue, instead, that the film provides a critique of the labour relations of China’s new service industry through an extended cinematic engagement with the architectural complex of the Park. In this reading, the theme of the park and the film is therefore not ‘the global’ so much as it is travel. But not travel as a touristic sojourn or as the struggle of the floating worker, but travel understood as pure movement, outside of the constraints of architecture and labour. The desire for travel is initiated by the architecture in which the protagonists work. Jia notes that the surreal quality of the park extends to the lives of the workers within it stating, ‘people’s lives within that space are also quite surreal. When I spoke to the women who perform at the park, they said they had danced the same dance there every day for the past three years. While they felt a kind of freedom in being able to randomly enter into different parts of the world, they also felt trapped in this insular environment.’1’ This sentiment encapsulates the film’s approach to architecture, as both a constraint initiating habit and repetition and as an opening outward into new desires like travel and love which cannot be fulfilled by the workers lives in the service industry. The film asks: what happens when architecture designed to be looked at is inhabited? The World shows the manner in which this architecture is both a site of entrapment and an initiator of utopian desiring as well as a stimulus for cinematic invention.

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