WoWorldly desires

Window of the World opened in 1984, on the auspicious day of 6.18 (June 18). Yesterday, I visited WoW with Constant Dullaart, one of the residents in this years OCT Art Residency. The featured image for this post is a snap of us in front of Niagara Falls.

This is the first time I’ve visited WoW since 1997, and was impressed by two of the new installations — a plane ride trip through the United States (installed 2004) and a toy train ride through mountainous Europe (June this year). The plane ride uses IMAX technology and moving seats to give the impression of flying coast to coast on a double wing plane. At each landmark, white Americans wave to visitors, yelling, “Welcome to the United States”; in watery areas, visitors are lightly spritzed with water. The toy train is less high-tech, but more popular with young children. According to one of the friendly staff members, these rides are part of plans to shift WoW entertainment from viewing miniature landscapes to interactive rides and activities; I’m thinking WoW goes Epcott.

I was struck not only by the yearning for elsewhere manifest in the WoW installations, but also by the continuing nostalgia for a particular kind of elite life. Tourism as an activity of early 20th century elites continues to shape built forms of this yearning. (Or perhaps we experience nostalgia in search of an object?) This neo-liberal appropriation of colonial forms of pleasure was also been reproduced at Shekou’s Seaworld, circa 1984, where the plaza houses western consumption in quaint buildings and the landlocked Shining Pearl.

Seaworld was one of the first efforts to materialize Chinese yearnings for the better (relentlessly global) life. Nevertheless, by the early 1990s, when WoW was built and developers put up European style estates (with appropriate tributes to Versailles excess), Shenzhen grappled to implement neo-liberal economic policies without neo-liberal political changes. The political-economy of both early Shekou and 1990s Shenzhen were reminiscent of early 20th century capitalism, when all sorts of material wealth began to appear, but only a few people were positioned to enjoy it. Or more to the point, perhaps, only a few elites had both the leisure and resources to enjoy it, including romantic alpine train rides and virtual plane rides on double wing planes a la the Wright brothers.

The fantasy life infusing representations of the early 20th century high life — the fashionable world — were a fixture of 1990s Shenzhen architecture. Seaworld and WoW, for example, were conceived and built in the post Tian’anmen era, when “European-style” housing estates were also popular, including OCTs upscale Portofino. In fact, throughout Shenzhen, but especially along Shennan Center Road, the mini-fascades that wrap WoW and Seaworld dreams have been enlarged in themed real estate developments, where many of Shenzhen’s solidly middling middle class still live and to which many migrants aspire.

Yesterday morning while waiting for Constant, I stood at the subway exit that is located beneath the Jiang Zemin inscribed glass pyramid and watched ticket scalpers approach tourists. The tourists spoke accented Mandarin, and had organized themselves into small groups of carefully dressed visitors. They examined the pamphlets, considered their options, and then opened their umbrellas to embark a rainy day of exploration. Those I later saw again within the park seemed to be enjoying themselves; I certainly enjoyed the toy train and virtual plane rides.

In recent years, of course, Shenzhen’s vision of the world has gone SciFi glassy — steeled if you will — against the imaginary onslaught of encounters with alien lives. However, that kind of elite consumption does not resonate with the same visceral pleasure of early 20th century elites enjoying both their traditional privileges and the mass produced delights of a new era. I’m trying to figure out why. Guess du jour: we want elite agency, but we want it as pleasure,in the play of tourism and leisurely meals, for example, rather than as the high stress, overwhelmed and overwhelming agency that seems to characterize elite life on the ninety-first story of a 21st century glass tower.

Postcards from my Alpine excursion, below:

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