Dollars and Dim Sum: Merchandising Chinese History

By Lowe, Kate; McLaughlin, Eugene | History Today, June 1995 | Go to article overview

Dollars and Dim Sum: Merchandising Chinese History


Lowe, Kate, McLaughlin, Eugene, History Today


* In the highly competitive world of popular entertainment, tourist and leisure companies are constantly on the look-out for novel ideas and exotic new experiences. In the 1980s, sections of the industry raided every period of history for inspiration. One of the lasting results is the authentic' historically themed environment in the form of heritage centres, folk parks and, perhaps the most accessible of all, the theme park. These are commercial leisure complexes where carefully selected important historical figures, moments, buildings and experiences are recreated and reinscribed for immediate mass consumption. They can either be built around a site which is home to an authentic historical happening or be purely artificial. The great advantage of the latter is that the developers can imagine history anew. Ingenious, relatively inexpensive technologies enable the parks to deliver a historical and cultural feel-good product in a suitable soundbite and interactive format. They, in effect, have found a way to transform time and place into a piece of merchandise. As they enter the new multi-media pleasure domes, travellers in hyper-reality are assured that history and culture are accessible, entertaining and different. And judging by the global proliferation of these ventures, they have obviously struck a chord.

Perhaps the most intriguing addition to this genre is the multi-million dollar Chinese theme park which has materialised in Hong Kong, Singapore, China and America. Although the first one was built in Lai Chi Kok in Hong Kong in 1979, it was not until the early 1990s that the idea really, took off. The various parks claim to be authentic recreations of life during different epochs of Chinese history. There are the Sung Dynasty Village and The Middle Kingdom in Hong Kong, the Tang Dynasty City in Singapore, and Splendid China in the People's Republic of China and Kissimmee in Florida.

A key question is what history is omitted in these representations of the past as popular culture, civilisation or entertainment. What is the purported function of these theme parks: do they operate solely as commercial ventures., using entertainment as a way of making money, or do they also have a didactic and ideological purpose that both hides behind and deepens their recreational pull? Is Chinese nationalism being dressed up as fun? Or is it merely that there are difficulties with the representation and complex realities of Chinese history in all these places and that therefore the most conservative and traditional interpretation is the one that is aired? Are these versions of history considered safe and inoffensive because they are from the fifth or eighth centuries, rather than the nineteenth and twentieth?

The brochures make a conscious effort to lure customers back through time to a more uncomplicated world, when nowhere outside 'the Middle Kingdom' mattered. It is no coincidence that the latest Chinese theme park in Hong Kong, situated inside the vast leisure complex of Ocean Park (which was originally sponsored by the largest charity in the territory, the Hong Kong Jockey Club), chose The Middle Kingdom' as its name.

In all the parks, the millions of visitors, the vast majority of whom are Chinese, are promised an encounter with the world's oldest civilisation, through the medium of replicas of the great man-made and natural wonders of China, such as the Great Wall, the Terracotta warriors at Xi'an, the Forbidden Palace at Beijing, the Gardens of Xuzhou and 'typical' temples, pagodas, landscaped gardens and waterfalls. Parks can be more or less educational in their approach, some having comprehensive labels on every exhibit and plant, while others give information a lower priority. At the Tang Dynasty City in Singapore and the Sung Dynasty Village in Hong Kong (both owned by Hong Kong tycoon, Deacon Chiu), for example, visitors can also make the most of wax museums containing tableau upon tableau of mighty and warlike emperors, occasionally accompanied by a scheming concubine, devoted mother or faithful servant.

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