The first time I truly studied the cityscape of Shenzhen, China, after my husband Ned and I moved there to work, I saw the Eiffel Tower. There it stood among the megacity’s endless rows of high-rises, its dark, majestic curves silhouetted in stark relief against the smoggy sky. I wondered if we were in the right country, let alone the right continent. When we asked the locals about it, the response was unanimously enthusiastic: “That’s Window of the World. It’s wonderful! You must visit it.”
We learned later that Window of the World is a theme park featuring miniature replicas of many of the world’s most famous landmarks, including the Taj Mahal, Niagara Falls, the Serengeti, the Roman Colosseum, and, of course, the Eiffel Tower. It is one of the only tourist attractions in Shenzhen, a city famous for its manufacturing prowess rather than its liveability.
A few weeks after moving to Shenzhen, Ned and I decided to spend a Saturday touring Window of the World. The brochure we received at the entrance claimed it is “one of the large popular tourist attractions across the country. Exceptionally assembled in the 480,000-sq.m. theme park will be the marvellous sights of the world, natural landscapes, over 130 scenic spots of Shenzhen window of the world even folklore and social fantastic world where tourists can find much pleasure.” The re-creations are built in ratios ranging from 1:1 (a European-style church) to 1:15 (the Great Pyramids, which are only a bit taller than the people marvelling at them).
Despite the high marks the park received from locals, I went into it with low expectations. I couldn’t help thinking about all the things my mother had told me about China when I was a child, of what an oppressive place it had become after the Communists came to power. Things had changed drastically since Deng Xiaoping opened up the country, I knew, but decades of isolation from the international community had surely taken their toll—and life in modern China still has its fair share of restrictions.
Just a couple weeks before, a Chinese National had asked us, “With an American passport, are you able to travel to every country in the world?” His voice had been wistful.
I had paused before responding, thinking of countries like North Korea and Iran. But I knew the only real answer I could give was, “Yes.”
He had sighed heavily. “I really want to visit America. But I can’t even go to Hong Kong.”
Another local we befriended was desperate to visit other countries, but she doubted she would ever get the funds or the permission to leave China. Instead, she settled for asking Ned and me to bring back foreign currencies from our travels. Her excitement at receiving a few metal coins from exotic places like France and Canada always made me feel guilty about my freedom.
I thought of both of them when I saw a huge sign above the park entrance proclaiming, “Welcome to Our World.” “Yeah, it’s their version of the world,” I muttered to Ned, who shook his head at my cynicism. He was always more tolerant of China than I—perhaps because, as a Turkish-Jewish American rather than a Chinese American, the country’s shortcomings didn’t feel as personal to him. When I saw a booth selling fake passports for visitors to get stamped at different regions of the park, I continued my diatribe. “They’re just trying to make the locals feel like they can travel the world when they actually can’t.”
I stopped complaining as we wandered down the main paved path of the park, trying to get my bearings. There was no mistaking it this time; we were in Asia. The area around us was like a smorgasbord of the continent’s greatest hits, including a waist-high Great Wall, a dusty Shwedagon Pagoda, and a tiny Thai Grand Palace with its corners worn off. And this, in concrete form before me, was the promise of Window of the World: while the cosmopolitan city just across the border was unavailable, the best things in the world could be brought to Shenzhen—albeit smaller, more rundown, and of poorer quality. One of the manufacturing capitals of the world would certainly not shirk from manufacturing the world itself.
But as strange as the structures were, the citizens of Window of the World were even odder. They were all Chinese, regardless of what continent lay beneath our feet. We saw Chinese wearing cowboy hats and boots, Chinese wearing kimonos and hanboks, Chinese walking around in Dutch hats and wooden shoes.
Ned and I were examining an African “safari” of hundreds of tiny rubber animals scattered in a sprawling circle around a dirt patch when the sound of drumming caught our attention. We strolled over to a small stage, on which several men and women were dancing frenetically. As we joined the crowd encircling the stage, I felt a boulder—in miniature form, of course—developing in my gut. “Oh, no. Please don’t let this be what I think it is,” I said.
It was worse. The Chinese dancers on the stage wore grass skirts and tribal headdresses, their faces, arms, and legs darkened with brown makeup. They flailed their limbs in time with the rapid drumming, erupting with yips and hollers at random intervals.
“Wow, this is fascinating.” Ned held up our camera to snap a few pictures. I covered my eyes and moaned softly.
The rest of the crowd was delighted with the performance. They smiled, clapped, and even gave a few cheers, quite a display of support in such a low-emotive culture.
One visitor towered more than a head above everyone else: an African tourist. He had a broad grin on his face as he watched the dancers.
“See?” Ned elbowed me. “Even he thinks it’s funny.”
I thought the performance couldn’t be any more offensive, but then the dancers began to speak. I didn’t understand all that they said, but I understood enough. There were jokes about polygamy, about wife-beating, about having dozens of children. The crowd laughed uproariously, and the African man continued to smile.
Horrified, I dragged Ned out of Africa and into the Americas as quickly as I could. He tried to turn back to snap a few more photos and to see what the Chinese-Africans would do next, but I had had enough. I could see the White House and the Capitol Building ahead, and even though they only came up to my knees, I still felt comforted by the familiar sights.
Until, that is, I saw the New York City skyline, one of the only complete cityscapes within the park. There in the middle stood the original World Trade Center, the three-foot-tall twin towers dwarfing the buildings around them. I wondered if it was insensitivity, apathy, or indecision that had led the caretakers of Window of the World to leave the skyline in its pre-9/11 form. Whatever the reason, I felt goose bumps along my skin as I turned away from the disconcerting sight.
If stature represents standing in a miniature theme park, then someone had deemed Europe the most worthy of all. As we entered the European section, we walked down a human-sized cobblestone street, surrounded by picturesque buildings soaring over twenty feet above us. The architecture, with European-style casement windows and colourful awnings, reminded me of the Montmartre neighbourhood of Paris—almost. Nearby, the elevator in the Eiffel Tower replica creaked as it brought a handful of eager tourists to the top of the tower, from which they had a perfect view of Shenzhen’s apartment buildings and office towers and the heavy haze that hung over the city like a curtain.
A cathedral—life-sized but still small by European standards—caught my eye. Its door was open, the blessed comfort of air conditioning wafting out at us. That was all the invitation we needed to go inside. I had only a moment to settle onto a velvet-covered pew and notice the sunlight filtering through stained glass windows before the sound of organ music began playing loudly and the door slammed shut. I couldn’t help wondering what the citizens of Window of the World had in store for us next.
A few moments later, two men dressed in white robes and purple stoles walked quietly down the red-carpeted aisle between the pews. They both wore large gold crucifixes around their necks and carried a black leather-bound book. One of the men, his face devoid of emotion, stepped up to the pulpit at the front of the chapel, opened his book, and began to speak. He looked and sounded for all the world like a priest giving a sermon in front of a congregation in a church—except that he was an actor in a performance in a replicated building in an amusement park.
When the service-show ended several minutes later, Ned and I returned to the quaint streets of Europe, blinking in the smoggy sunlight. Around us the locals chattered excitedly and smiled at one another. They were clearly impressed—at what the world outside China supposedly looked like, or their country’s ability to replicate it, I wasn’t sure.
“I’m ready to go home,” I told Ned, feeling deflated. Home was a two-bedroom flat in an almost all-Chinese district of Shenzhen, but I couldn’t help thinking of my home back in the U.S. “Me too,” he agreed.
Our last stop of the day was the dinosaur park section of Window of the World. The dinosaurs were in miniature form, of course, and stood only a little higher than Ned’s height of six feet. The worn rubber skin that covered their reptilian bodies creaked as their heads jerked to and fro. The dinosaurs impotently waved their clawed arms like they were about to give chase. Their squeaky roars, and the shrieks of fleeing Chinese children, served as our final send-off from the fantasy world that they inhabited.
We were greeted by honking horns on the other side of the turnstiles. Taxis competed for customers as other commuters sped by as if they really believed the miniature dinosaurs were coming for them. In the distance, I saw an army of construction cranes building even more high-rises, expanding a megacity already filled to its boundaries with more than ten million residents. Shenzhen is one of the biggest cities on the planet, but at that moment, as I stood outside Window of the World, it had never felt so small.
Dorcas Cheng-Tozun is a writer and editor who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is currently writing a memoir about her experience as a Chinese American living in Shenzhen, China.