Huangpu Park in Shanghai is famous for a sign that never even existed. Until 1928 Chinese people could only enter the park if accompanied by a foreigner. But from this restriction grew a legend: that a sign posted at the park gate stipulated: “NO DOGS OR CHINESE ALLOWED.”
Sign or not, those days are long gone. But at West Lake – one of China’s most popular tourist attractions – there are some who are pondering whether the legend needs to be updated. Perhaps it should now read: “NO POOR CHINESE ALLOWED AT WEST LAKE”.
That’s because locals are complaining that they are no longer permitted to walk freely in what they consider to be public areas.
West Lake is in Hangzhou – a city that has thrived in recent years from tourism, high-tech development and real estate. Thanks to the booming economy, the picturesque West Lake and its neighbouring landmarks are now flooded with expensive clubs and resorts.
Take the highly exclusive Jiangnan Club, for instance. The members-only club boasting heavy weights like Ma Yun, founder of Alibaba and Ding Lei, CEO of Netease caused controversy with the locals in August last year when it appeared to block one of the entrances to the West Lake park. According to the two security guards at the gate, the passage was the private property of the Jiangnan Club. No trespassing was allowed.
In fact, there are now nearly 40 of these elite members clubs along the West Lake. And less well-off locals are riled that they are being priced out. “I used to come here [West Lake] with my friends to enjoy a cup of coffee,” says one Hangzhou resident. “Since the end of last year, my hangout joints have disappeared one by one. My favourite spot has become a ‘Lawyers’ Club’ and all the restaurants serve shark’s fins and bird’s nest. Is West Lake exclusive only to rich people?”
In a poll conducted by the Youth Times, more than half of those surveyed were opposed to the construction of private clubs. The tension is further evidence of the often less than perfect marriage between cultural and commercial interests in China (see page 11, WiC14).
Many lake-goers continue to speak of the attraction’s heritage, and the chance to spend time at a landmark steeped in local history. But for Yuan Yisan, a professor of Shanghai Tongji University, the historical associations are now more disturbing; the “so-called members-only clubs” are “no different from ancient feudalism”, Yuan complained to China News.
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