Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Back in the USSR
What follows is part of a piece I just wrote on Shenzhen theme parks for the weekend arts section (the "missing" part was a reheated account from the blog on a visit to another theme park, Splendid China.).
Theme parks, emergency rooms, prisons and Kenny G concerts are pretty much equals in my priorities when it comes to amusement, but other than parks, shopping and bar-hopping, Shenzhen really doesn't have a lot to offer tourists. And as the director of the Shenzhen tourism bureau, once said: "When we lack tourist attractions, we either build or buy them.''
Hence, Minsk World. When the Soviet Union closed up shop and held its going out of business sale, the 1970s-era aircraft carrier-cruiser Minsk - named after capital of Belarus - was among the bargain basement specials. It was snapped up by a Chinese company that turned it into a theme park that combines faded Soviet communist military might with an occasionally slightly saucy, but family friendly atmosphere.
Where else can mom, pop and the kids bond by firing mock AK-47s, tossing fake hand grenades, relax with a Pepsi while sitting on a 250 or 500 defused kilogram bomb and then catch a floor show on the flight deck featuring sinuous bandolier-wrapped, pistol-packing female contortionists dressed in skin-tight imitation Spetznaz (Russian special forces) uniforms.
"The sea park firstly open more than ten thousand square meters sightsee area to the public let the tourist feel the newness and stimulate of the carrier life,'' declared the Chinglish text in a promotional brochure. "It perfectly combines the Southland beach life and the military atmosphere. It suits to be a fallow or a casino. Minsk Aircraft Carrier Park specializes from other Parks for its brilliance military theme.''
The "fallow or casino'' part remained a mystery but the part about the "newness and stimulate of the carrier life'' intrigued me and on the 100th anniversary of Deng Xiaopeng's birthday, I decided to celebrate by weighing anchor for Minsk World accompanied by a first mate, a translator I'll call C. She was not a happy sailor.
"I came there two years ago with my mother and promised myself I would never return,'' she groused as the cab dropped us off in the rain in Yantien district where the former ``Peril of the Seas'' now looms as a 120 yuan a pop tourist trap.A poster at the entrance displayed a cleavage-baring blonde in an approximate Soviet naval uniform and cap.
``What does it say?'' I asked C.``It promises `beautiful military flowers' inside,'' she said, smirking a little.
We passed the ``Happy Family'' military shooting and hand grenade tossing gallery next to a large square with several MIG-21s, surface-to-air missiles and an enormous Socialist Realism statue of a bare-chested man beating a sword into a plowshare. The messages were definitely mixed, and remained so inside the dark, gloomy carrier where one of the first sights was more families sprawling on racks of large bombs next to one of many gift stands that featured a plethora of military-related offerings such as replica pistols next to a ``financial family of man'' style, multi-country coin and paper money collections. Guns and money. All that was needed was lawyers.
I looked in vain for any American currency, but only found a lone, tarnished Canadian quarter between a Belarus ruble and a North Korean won.But the USA was represented on a bank of shaking and humming space flight simulators that seat 12. A long queue had formed to ride the simulators that were oddly - and creepily - enough, stenciled with "Challenger'' on their sides, not "Shenzhou-5'' or even "Soyuz''.
Wandering through the carriers' various decks and ducking to avoid cutting my forehead open while passing through the short hatchways, we saw a video of the glorious People's Liberation Army fighting Vietnamese ``bandit invaders'' circa 1979 and a lot of photos of the ship's glory days - happy Soviet naval personnel and displays of their medals as well as the captain's cabin. Inside was a wax skipper in a white uniform, holding a wine glass and surrounded by Russian nesting dolls and portraits of Stalin and Lenin.
Less a formidable Soviet sea wolf and more a guy drinking alone surrounded by cliches.
On the flight deck the show was about to begin. Several of the 12 blue and black camouflage clad contortionists were warming up by standing on one leg while stretching the other behind their necks until the recorded martial music began blaring."Oh!'' C exclaimed. "I know this song! It is called I'm a Happy Soldier. Very popular for my parents' generation.''
It wasn't exactly Vegas-quality, but the happy soldiers certainly had unique approach to gun safety. The show's climax had them pointing their large pistols at the crowd and pretending to shoot the audience before they mock fired simultaneously over their heads in smiling celebration. No one applauded, but to be fair they also watched stone-faced and chatted loudly among themselves as 12 male "soldiers" in mock US Marine dress blue uniforms topped with Soviet-style, high visor hats tossed rifles back and forth and performed close-order drill to the strains of Colonel Bogey's March (theme to The Bridge on the River Kwai).
"No one's clapping,'' I said to C. "What are they saying? Do they like the show?''
"I don't know. They are mostly saying, `Where is my wife?' `Where are the children?' `Did you turn off the flash?' `Did you take the lens cover off?', `I'm hungry' and `Where is the toilet?' ''
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