Shanghai Disneyland will officially open on June 16, a move eagerly awaited by many Chinese and expats alike. (With some notable exceptions.) An expat myself, I too am excited to visit.
But can we take a step back? As China's economy grows and modernizes, there is no doubt that a whole new world of sleek products is opening up to Chinese consumers, but the modest cost is the loss of that hilarious, often shocking, "fake-market" charm that has bemused foreigners since China's opening to the West in the late 1970s. We're witnessing the Disneyfication of Shanghai.
This is not to knock Disney -- or even Disneyfication. I grew up on Disney. And I can't in good conscience argue that the Disneyfication of my home town -- New York City -- was truly a bad thing either. (As culturally bereft as Times Square is now, I still prefer it to people openly selling drugs and sex on the streets.)
In the same vein, it would be unfair to say that China should not join other developed nations in the free exchange of modern culture -- even if joining other developed nations in the free exchange of modern culture means erecting a bunch of Uniqlos and Bubba Gump Shrimp Company Restaurants.
However, it would be equally wrong to say that something will not be lost:
Exhibit A: This advertisement for sunglasses I saw a few months back.
Someday this type of thing will be considered unacceptable, even in China.
Finding out that Shanghai Disney would soon officially open took me back to a simpler time, approximately a year ago. Last July 4, I was not able to be home with my loved ones setting off fireworks, but, luckily, tucked away in Western Beijing is a little slice of Americana. An unlicensed, bootleg slice.
Baojiao Amusement Park, a near-full-scale ripoff of Disneyland, was sad and amazing and everything I had hoped it would be. After paying the 10 RMB (less than $2) entrance fee, you enter into a small garden where you are greeted by three happy, multicolored cartoon animals ushering you in with big smiles.
Just follow the Chinese families (there are literally tens of people in the park! ) down an unmarked dirt path that leads to the rides and other attractions. And there it is: Fake Disney Castle.
No, it may not be Shanghai's Enchanted Storybook Castle, the biggest of all Disney's castles. And there's no princess outside to greet you. But there is a picture of Disney's Cinderella™ on the advertisement for the 4D movie they're showing inside.
And there, to your left... Is that...? (Gasp) Yes, it's Fake Epcot Center!
No, there's no Space Mountain (in fact the whole building looks abandoned), but there is a stray dog sitting outside. So there's that.
This is where I found exactly what I had set out to find that overcast July 4. In an off-green, castle-like structure decorated with images I couldn't quite make out stood "America Adventure."
There wasn't anyone in line (it was drizzling), so I went in and tried to see if it was open. I gave the surprised women running the ride a shrug and a look that tried to convey: "I speak terrible Chinese, but I am an American; it's Independence Day; and I want to ride this ride. Where do I buy tickets?"
She pointed me to a small hut where two teenage girls accepted my 15RMB (slightly over $2) and gave me a ticket. They also looked at each other and rolled their eyes, I suppose because I was a single white man alone at a family amusement park in Beijing. But surly teenage ticket takers rolling their eyes at me? It was just like being back in America!
[Spoiler alert: I am about to ruin "America Adventure" for you.]
First you sit down and grab your blue gun. (This is America after all!) It's very dark, but as your eyes adjust, you see it... An authentic American kangaroo. You shoot the blue LED panel next to it, causing a light to blink on and a little slot machine noise to sound. A million (!) points show up on your scoreboard. (As I was the only person on the ride, I ended up winning by millions and millions of points.)
Then, as you slowly slide to the left through the Kangaroo Jungle, you pass into the second and final phase of your American Adventure: Gold Rush. As you shoot more little blue LED panels, you light up various old-timey prospectors. "Ni hao! Ni hao!" they scream at you. One of their heads is spinning around 360 degrees.
Unfortunately, the ride had to end sometime. I thanked the ride operator and headed outside where it was beginning to rain in earnest.
And now, with the opening of Shanghai Disney, it looks like one more door is closing on a whole damn era. I've traveled far and wide in my life: I remember the first McDonald's springing up in my grandma's Minnesota town of 2,000 people; I've eaten at the Popeye's Chicken on the southern side of the Korean DMZ; and I'm wearing a pair of Uniqlo pants bought here in China right now as I type. I'll end up going to Shanghai Disney someday, I'm sure, but I'm also thankful I'll always have one rainy day at Baojiao to remember.