"Theme Park" Museums - Splendid China and China Folk Culture Villages

A disclaimer before we begin: my iPhone, which I foolishly use as my camera despite the fact that it is becoming more temperamental by the day, decided to require a total reboot a few days after I visited this theme park/museum. Thus, I lost all of my pictures! My friend Brad kindly allowed me to use some of his for this post. I had a lot of pictures to post with this blog (to give you an idea of my photographing ways, I took about 150 pictures at the museum and Brad took 14. Our third companion took about five. I’m thinking they’re the normal one) but alas, Apple products are really lovely in their “we will work perfectly just long enough for your warranty to expire!” behaviors. So that is why there are a lot fewer pictures in this post than I would usually have, and why all but one of them are not mine, both facts of which are killing me. But I’m not willing to spend the admission fee just to take pictures again, so…guess you’ll just have to go see everything for yourself, eh? Ok, onwards!

“Let the world experience the beauty of China”: so says the brochure.

Now, I love, and I mean love, open-air museums. History was always my favorite topic in school. My bachelors and masters degrees have heavy historical focuses, and I even worked at an open-air museum back in my home state of Minnesota (blog coming..someday…). So when I found out that China’s “first cultural theme park” was in Shenzhen, I knew it was the place for me.

Two of my co-workers, Brad and Ashley, were also interested in visiting the museum, so we arranged to meet at the Overseas Chinese Town metro station, exit D, at 1:30 (Brad wanted to meet at 10, which would have required me to wake up around 8 on my day off. Needless to say, I gave him a hard no when he piped up with that suggestion).

Two giant, cutesy statues kissing greeted us as we climbed the short staircase to the ticket office, because this is China and of course they did. The entrance fee was a little steep for Shenzhen (200 Yuan, or $29), but we paid it hoping that the museum would be worth the cost. We then went through security (a metal detector that was highly suspicious of Ashley’s practically empty purse), scanned our tickets, and walked down the long, topiary-covered staircase that led to the attractions.

The museum/theme park/whatever you want to call it is split into two. If you go left, you will visit Splendid China, and on the right, China Folk Culture Villages. We decided to head right first, for no reason other than that we were closer to it.

I knew right away that the 200 Yuan admission was worth it. China Folk Culture Villages was the half of the park that was very much like an open-air museum, though with fewer interpreters than most I’ve been to. The first village that we went to is right at the entrance. It is meant to imitate a 19th century street in Huizhou, another city in Guangdong Province. It looked exactly like photographs I’ve seen of traditional East Asian village, with white washed walls and jutting roofs. However, we didn’t linger because we saw a pathway shadowed with hanging flowers and we, cartoon-like, eyes popping out of our heads, walked over to look. And then we became Instagram basics for a few minute while we took many pictures (ok, to be fair they became Snapchat basics because they're Gen Zers). And that is why the flowers are the only picture of mine to survive the day, because I uploaded it to Instagram! Thank god for the basic ways!

I wanted to go back to the Huizhou Street, but the two of them walked away from it so I followed. We walked through several large arches towards the Dai Ethnic Village, which was quite "Thai" in appearance. There was not much information here, so we spent most of the time admiring the empty pool. Apparently when its warmer the pool is filled. Jury’s still out as to whether or not you can swim though. It looked like you could, but also it's kind of a weird concept to just have a swimming pool in the middle of a museum…though they do call it a theme park…?? And there was nowhere to put things like bags and towels…I don’t know, man.

Next up was the “Wind and Rain” bridge which was stunning, which was a replica of the famous Chengyang Bridge in Guangxi Province. I stopped and took many photos along the way (RIP), because it was really beautiful. As we made our way across the water, we admired the tall temples that were poking through the trees on all sides. This being a folk museum in one of the world’s more diverse countries, the architectures ranged from what I think of as being Nepalese, Thai, and Japanese. It was a stunning sight to see.

Upon reaching the other end of the bridge, we emerged at the base of a drum tower. This was also pretty amazing architecture, and impressively large, especially considering that it was only a small replica of the real thing. A drum tower is incredibly important for the Dong ethnic group, and is their meeting place for various functions. Their drum towers are very tall with many layered floors (always an odd number of floors too). There were stairs up and the three of us eagerly headed towards them, but alas, they were blocked off. This became the theme of the day - no matter how many stairs there were, we were never able to climb anything.

Connected to the drum bridge was the recreation of the Dong village. However, we did not linger there because we heard an approaching noise – that of the ever-present school group. After a (very quick) stop at a small water contraption which showed how the Dong people used running water and bamboo to make noise in the forest so that people working amongst the trees would hear them and be able to find their way back to the village, we continued onwards in order to get ahead of the noisy children.

Our next stop was the Naxi Folk House, which looked like something one would see in Nepal - we were greeted to the pavilion with many colorful prayer flags, for goodness sake. As we stepped into the courtyard, Ashley stopped dead in her tracks and said, “oh, absolutely not.” We looked back at her, confused as to why the lovely Himalayan architecture would render her so disgusted, but then she pointed to a small pond that contained four or five small turtles. Apparently the girl is afraid of them, and kept insisting they were looking her in the eye while I cooed and took pictures, and Brad ignored both of us and went into the house. However, we once again heard the impending mass of children, so we again fled to the next attraction, a large wooden replica of a Musuo house. This place was a bit of a trip, more attraction than cultural (though there was a woman dressed in traditional garb, and we did learn that the Museo people are matriarchal so that’s always nice). One of the rooms was like the Relativity painting, where the tables, teapots, shoes, and staircases were all on the ceiling. Another room was a physics-defying experience, one of those where you walk in and are instantly dizzy and standing at an angle. Ashley has inner-ear issues as is, so she quickly exited, but Brad and I had fun playing with physics for about a minute before joining her.

Next up was the “Tea-Horse Town aka a replica of when Westerners showed up for tea trades. This particular bit was focused on the 19th century. While the exterior of the buildings were quite Chinese, the insides were another story – they looked like the Old American West. The main room was a saloon full of grungy, white, male manikins. And it was a shooting arcade! Ashley paid the 1 Yuan (14 cents) fee, picked up the rifle, and shot at the various targets in the saloon. I was so amused at this, as there was nothing else in the park even remotely this interactive. I was also amused that “guns and alcohol’ was how they decided to portray Westerners (though not surprised. 1. In the 19th century, we did drink and have guns, and 2. The Chinese…uh, have an interesting (read: demeaning) way of portraying other cultures).

As we emerged from the Tea-Horse Town, we heard drumming in the distance. Across the main path was a hill where the sound was emanating. We headed up a staircase, and emerged to find a large stage with male and female drummers standing in front of drums made from various-sized logs. We sat on a bench and waited for the show to start, but the performers were just talking and every minute or so would bang on their wooden drums in excitement. As none of the three of us speak Chinese, we gave up after about four minutes and headed back down to the main path. A few minutes later, we could hear the actual drum show and, well, we didn’t regret leaving.

The tree drums made more sense once we arrived at the village attached to that ethnic group. This bit was was my absolute favorite part of the day – the Va Ethnic Village, which was basically Swiss Family Robinson. The presentation of their housing was full-blown tree houses, with no signs in any language explaining more. However, upon Googling later, there is nothing online saying that the Va actually ever lived in the trees so imagine my disappointment. But nonetheless, blissfully unaware me enjoyed frolicking amongst the trees immensely. The houses were connected by increasingly long wooden swinging bridges, which my 29-year-old self gleefully ran across while the two 21 year olds very tentatively put one foot on them slowly because they were convinced that the Chinese construction was not safe and they would fall the 12 feet to the ground.

Once we were back on the ground (to my sadness and their absolute relief), we crossed the path back towards the Tea-Horse Town. Next to it stood a replica of the Thousand-Hand and Thousand-Eye Guanyin Buddha, a gold statue (the world’s sixth largest!) in Hunan Province. While the park’s replica was not gold, it was still quite large. It depicts Avalokitesvara (say that five times fast. Or just once, even), which represents the compassion of Buddha.

Next door was a very large what looked to be a circus tent, which seemed to be a “dinner and a show” style venue. We continued past, had a quick bathroom break (no toilet paper, I always forget to pack my own – it’s quite common here for public restrooms to have no paper. Thankfully, I just peed), and then walked past a large arena that sounded as though a gladiator show was happening behind its doors. It was marketed as a representation of the desert of China, complete with camel rides. As much as I like camel rides, we continued onwards.

Next up were STONE CAVES, which I always love (not everything earns a caps-lock from me, after all). These caves represented housing in northern Shaanxi Province, in central China. I’ve visited cave houses before, in Petra, but it was great to be able to compare Bedouin and Chinese. Not that they were tremendously different, a cave with a bed is a cave with a bed, but still.

Next up was another nod to the Himalayan aspect of Chinese culture, with the Lamasery – a Buddhist monastery! We walked through the square, white-washed buildings of the village first, and watched a group of workers dressed in traditional outfits making prayer flags. We then headed up the stairs towards the Lamasery itself. When we went inside, I gasped. The colors! Sure, it was a replica, but a replica of the real thing. I had no idea that Asian temples were that colorful!

The last place we went in into was the Quadrangle, which was very "Mulan’s house". This was my second-favorite stop of the day, (and my actual favorite from a cultural standpoint, but I love tree houses, so...) and where I took the most pictures (not that you’d know). Because I had stopped to snap so many pictures, Brad and Ashley were already done with the house before I’d made it into one of the rooms. I entered what I assume was the main living area of the house (again, no signs) but I was followed in by three elderly women. I had about five seconds to enjoy the room before they basically surrounded me and starting shouting “foreigner, foreigner!” at me through heavy peals of laughter. I wasn’t in the mood for that, so I headed over to Ashley and Brad. Not only did the women follow me, but one of them kept pushing my back (lightly but still). I was visibly annoyed by the time I got to my friends, and Ashley said something to them in Chinese. They freaked out that she could speak some Chinese, and they switched their attention from me to her. They weren’t being malicious, just curious, but it was annoying as hell. Even in Senegal, the kids might scream “foreigner” at you but it’s not common for adults to, and no adult would ever chase someone. Someday I’ll write a blog about how China views outsiders, but for now I’ll just leave it at this story and the brief mention above about China's descriptions of the rest of the world.

Next to the Quadrangle was a mosque, but I’ve seen many real mosques so I didn’t need to go in, and the other two were ok with skipping it as well. I also didn’t feel tremendously comfortable looking at a replica mosque in a Chinese park when the government is sending its actual Muslim population to concentration camps.

And that was the China Folk Culture Villages half of the park! We made our way from the quadrangle back to the entrance area, through dining areas (pictured) and vendors (one of whom was playing a wooden flute, and upon seeing us switched his song to "Jingle Bells." We didn't buy anything or even stop, but fair marketing tactic to him).

Once we got to the entrance, we headed left to Splendid China. Full disclosure, I liked this half of the park more than did the other two did. Rather than having replicas of houses and temples, Splendid China had small models on the grass of full towns. I liked seeing layouts of traditional Chinese towns, but we certainly made our way through this half faster than we went through China Folk Culture Villages.

A couple of highlights: an area where "the most famous people in the world" had planted trees. Most of these "most famous people" were presidents of African or Oceania countries, though Fidel Castro and Henry Kissinger were also included. Also; a large field of sunflowers, which are always lovely to look at. And finally, a model of the grounds of the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, which - if it was done to scale - is much larger than I ever thought it was.

Overall, the Splendid China and China Folk Culture Villages museum/theme park was well-worth the admission fee, and it made me really excited to travel around this country and see the real things.