Beijing to reopen as Dickensian theme park

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By Lou Shun
Culture Correspondent

Mine the income gap: Soot greeters at the Beijing Industrial Dickens Zone

Mine the income gap: Sooty greeters look for visitors at the Prosperous Industrial Zone at Dickens World

BEIJING (China Daily Show) – “Please sir, can I have some more tourists?” Faced with a decline in visitors, Beijing is turning to an unlikely inspiration for help – the novels of Charles Dickens.

Dickens World is a multi-district plan that will highlight 19th-century elements of the capital in a bid to boost its appeal, say officials.

The rebranding is already in the final stages, as cold weather blankets Beijing in a thick shroud of hard-to-breathe Dickensian atmosphere.

“Look at that pea-souper!” tourism chief Yang Wei urged, flinging open his office windows to let in tendrils of coke-tinged fog. “Picture yourself taking an evening stroll by the canal, maybe falling in, then catching something romantic, like tuberculosis.”

While Beijing’s skyscrapers, modern architecture and luxury malls may dazzle the casual visitor, life for its less privileged residents has long been a thankless grind against an implacable bureaucracy, riddled with corruption and injustice. “Why not turn that into a thematic experience?” wondered Dong Yimou, of the Beijing Cultural Affairs Bureau.

Fifty-two-year-old Wei believes Dickens World will revitalize any remaining parts of the city that haven’t been developed into luxury real estate or commercial property. “We wouldn’t have to change much,” he emphasized. “There are Bleak House motifs everywhere. Just the other day, a petitioner spontaneously combusted.”

District leaders have approved several projects, including Twist Times, an “interactive adventure,” in which visitors prowl a bus station for potential marks. According to promotional materials, tourists will be led by “an authentic singing Jew, who encourages prosperity with whimsical jingles, such as ‘In this life, one thing counts, in the bank, large amounts!’” But the brochure warns participants “be careful of genuine urchins. Child begging is illegal in China.”

Nicholas Nickleby readers will thrill to see a migrants’ school, while fans of Little Dorrit can take part in a genuine Ponzi scheme by visiting any Bank of China. Dickensian slogans with a Chinese twist – such as ‘The Communist Party bless us, one and all!’ and ‘It was the best of times, it was the best of times’ – will adorn key venues.

Wei said many of his colleagues had begun getting into character long before Dickens World was even announced.

“We actually have a surplus of Uriah Heaps,” he explained. “And of course, we can source Tiny Tim whenever we need. What we’re lacking at the moment is ‘moral center’ types – your Nancys, your Joe Gargerys.”

But while many have expressed enthusiasm, there has been resistance to Dickens World from a few quarters. Some argue that many other cities in China could offer a far more authentic evocation of Dickensian society than wealthy Beijing; others fear Dickens World may interfere with plans to turn Beijing’s suburbs into a Fallout 4 Experience Center.

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