Switzerland comes to Shenzhen

“I love to go a-wandering along the mountain track/ And as I go, I love to sing, my knapsack on my back/ Valderi, Valdera, Valderi /Valdera-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha”

It looks kind of like the place where William Tell might have put an arrow through the apple on the top of his son’s head, or Lord Byron licked his quill pen and wrote the Prisoner of Chillon. But it isn’t Geneva (mean elevation: 1,350 feet). It is Shenzhen (mean elevation: 9 feet).

It is a US$450 million combination theme park, resort and housing complex that features not only an idealized version of a Swiss-themed hotel and villas but, for reasons that are unclear, an authentic Chinese tea plantation where visitors are encouraged to pick tea leaves for a 160-yuan admission fee. At the moment, according to the park’s press agents, Grebstad Hicks Communications of Hong Kong, we are in the middle of the First International Mountain Songfest, a pageant of alpine folk music from home and abroad, which is to run until August 20 in the Grand Theatre.

Developed by a Shenzhen company called Shenzhen OCT Sanzhou Investment, this snowless Switzerland is just one of scores of themed villages rising out of the rice paddies, fields and forests of China, a particular weirdness that has much in common with Las Vegas’ penchant for creating mini-everythings in the desert, but also has its own peculiar twist as China gets rich and seeks to emulate what it thinks is western culture.

There is an entire German-style Weimar village wrapped around a Volkswagen plant north of Shanghai. There is also an Italian town tricked out with canals near Shanghai, along with an English Tudor village complete with castle, cobbled paths and garden maze. But East OCT, if you don’t mind the prosaic name, seems the most exotic, if for no other reason than that its architecture, amazingly faithful to Switzerland, seems so out of place. For the Chinese, form, in the aphorism attributed to American architect Louis Sullivan, does not necessarily follow function. In fact it appears de rigueur not to.

Shenzhen, itself, with virtually no authentic cultural or historic attractions of its own, hardly lacks for theme parks. Window of the World was the city’s first stab at giving tourists a global experience on a reduced scale, with smaller versions of the Eiffel Tower, the Taj Mahal, the White House, Lincoln Memorial, Easter Island, the Matterhorn, Notre Dame, Leaning Tower of Pisa, Stonehenge, Mount Fuji and more, including bikini-clad women prancing to “Sex Bomb” in the “Cultural Palace.” Virtually all of China is on display next door at Splendid China, including a two-foot high Great Wall plus a re-creation of Genghis Khan’s conquests in a western-style rodeo arena.

However, on the theory that if you build it, they will come, Joseph Zitnek, the general manager of the Swiss-themed development, asks: “Who wouldn’t want to live in a European style village with a five-star hotel and tea plantation nearby?” Good question.

Guests and residents can steep and sip the tea they’ve plucked to wash down authentic Swiss chocolates, sausage, pig’s feet and, yes, cheese, either sliced or as fondue, of course. No Swiss Army knives as cutlery, though, Zitnek says. Two Asian restaurants, Japanese and Chinese, and a KFC complete the cuisine offerings for guests yearning for more familiar fare.

But why a Swiss alpine theme in a subtropical climate?

“Chinese like European culture,” he says. “This time, though, I think some Shenzhen government officials went to Switzerland, liked it and decided they’d like to see the same thing here.”

For all that, East OCT doesn’t seem to have impressed the natives. Although one visitor called the European architecture “amazing and beautiful” and raved about the tea theme show, a man who identified himself as Nan Shan Er Ying was more typical: “I’ve been living for 30-something years and was never interested in how to make tea,” he wrote on a Shenzhen Web site. “Now I found I have to spend the price of 10 kilograms of pork to see it.”

It will cost a good deal more than 10 kilograms of pork to get into the park and some extra to eat, drink or stay at the Interlaken OCT Hotel, whose lobby is designed to resemble a medieval cathedral, complete with gothic chandeliers and stained glass windows – although the sacred altar and cross have been replaced with what Grebstad Hicks calls “an altar-style wine display.”

Entering this little Switzerland does make you feel that you could actually be in Europe except for the overwhelming number of Asian faces, with hardly a blond, blue-eyed Swiss-type in sight. Hundreds of people, however, work in the village clothed in a variety of purple and black “Swiss church-style” uniforms. The exceptions are the spa and tea valley plantation staff, who were sporting South Pacific island themes in Hawaiian patterned polo shirts.

An enormous lake graces the front of the Interlaken Hotel with a gold sculpture centerpiece in the middle that looks like a tropical flower. A Venetian gondola is available to take you from one side of the water to the other. Circling the lake are Swiss-style houses with shops on the first floor. Oddly, the rooms in the houses reminded me of traditional Miao ethnic minority homes in Hunan province, with the main difference being that the Swiss versions have cozy beds. Although I’ve never been to Europe, I also felt briefly as if I was there (or at least on the set of the latest James Bond movie, Casino Royale, some of which takes place in Venice).

The development is particularly proud of its Tea Stream Valley, linked by a 247-meter suspension bridge and 28 shorter bridges bringing the visitor to the mysterious east, and calling up memories of The Truman Show, the 1998 movie in which Jim Carrey discovers his entire life is actually a television show lived out on a village set.

In real life, in China’s north central Shangxi province, a tea plantation laborer receives 20 yuan a day for 10 hours of harvesting green tea, with free lodging in a packed two story, corrugated metal dormitory and three squares of Chinese cafeteria food daily. At OCT East, after paying the 160 yuan admission fee — that 10 kilos of pork again — tourists can fork out 80 yuan for the privilege of picking their own tea.

The Interlaken is the third OCT-group Euro-themed hotel in Shenzhen, after the vaguely Italianate Crown Plaza and the pseudo-Spanish style Intercontinental.

“The Interlaken is positioned between Crown Plaza and the Intercontinental,” Zitnek told Asia Sentinel. “East OCT is going to become a destination.”

Well, it is some kind of destination, that’s certain. The entertainment also packs a slightly surreal cultural punch. The 1,300-seat Interlaken theater features no yodelers or prancing Heidis in shepardess oufits, but it does feature tap dancing tea pots, Chinese ballet and a Tibetan style “Zen Tea Show,” reminding visitors, if they choose to think about it, of Zen Buddhism’s roots in 7th century China.

Zitnek and OCT are hoping for as many as 6,000 visitors, mostly from the mainland, during next year’s Chinese New Year holiday. Some might feel the Swissness so much that they’d like to live in ersatz Switzerland permanently. That’s what the 10 or so Alpine-like villas under construction are for in what is being called “Knight Village.” The development will also include the world’s largest man-made waterfall and longest Flume Water Ride, a mini ‘Forest Train’ and a cable car to a mountaintop sightseeing tower and restaurant.

But it is still China, as one visitor, who signed onto szhome.com as “Moonknife”, found more interest in the park’s behind-the-scenes details. “The funny thing about the park is that there is a police station and jail behind the waterfall and rocks,” he wrote. Referring to the classic Chinese story of the Monkey King who jumps from behind a similar rock/waterfall arrangement, he continued: “In this case, though, it was a cop, not a monkey that came from behind the rock.”