Wednesday, June 18, 2014

A visit to "Chinawood"

Whenever I come to China, I try to go somewhere I’ve never been. On this trip, I decided to visit Hengdian World Studios. I worked on a film studio lot in Los Angeles for many years; how could I resist a visit to the largest filming facility in China, which, as I understood it, is also a tourist attraction a la Universal Studios.

This trip happened kind of quickly and I didn’t have much time to research it or even really think much about where I was going and what I would do. I’d read an article about Hengdian that purported to explain how to get there and what to do, and for whatever reason, I just took it on faith that the information was correct.

So, I took a high-speed train from Shanghai to a place called Yiwu that I knew nothing about. From Yiwu I was supposed to look for Bus K850 and for 1.5 yuan take that to someplace called Jiangdong, where supposedly there were shuttles to Hengdian for 10 kuai. I didn’t know what time the buses ran or stopped running. I was mildly anxious about this, but not enough to do anything about it. I just got off the train in Yiwu and wandered over to the right, where the bus station was.

(this was on the way back, but you get the idea)

The bus: a typical Chinese public bus. I asked the attendant if it went to Jiangdong and if from Jiangdong I could get to Hengdian. She nodded and said “yes,” rather curtly, so I got on the bus. I was naturally the only laowai on the thing.

Which was standing room only. The bus jerked and moved and stopped and went, all of us who were unfortunate enough to be standing hanging on to the plastic strap handles and swaying with every turn and halt. I do not necessarily recommend traveling this way.

Yiwu, as it turns out, is a pretty big city. We passed a row of luxury car dealerships as we headed into town. Lexus and Infiniti. I’d never even heard of Yiwu, but at least a few people there must be making enough money to buy them.

The drive took a long time. We seemed to go out of the city, and then into another one, but when I asked the woman next to me where we were, it was still Yiwu.

Finally we came to Jiangdong, which was the end of the line with a lot of other city buses, still in Yiwu. A smaller white bus was parked there. I figured it was probably the shuttle to Hengdian, and as I stood there, considering, a guy asked me if I was going to Hengdian and said that this was indeed the right bus.

I sat by an open window, thinking, it would be nice to sit for this leg of the journey.

Unfortunately, just as I got comfortable, someone came on the bus and made an announcement in dialect that I couldn’t understand, but the upshot of which was, everybody had to get off this bus and get onto another one.

That bus, naturally, was already full. I grabbed the absolute last seat on it, climbing over someone’s suitcase to claim it, next to a young woman who was sitting sideways in the seat because her luggage was piled around her. More people boarded, filling the aisle. It was a 12 yuan ride, as it turned out. I asked the ticket collector how long it was to Hengdian. “Yige xiaoshi,” she told me. An hour. And “Nide Hanyu ting bucuo.” Your Chinese is not bad. This is a compliment. “Not really,” I told her. “I have a long way to go.” I would demonstrate how far later in the evening.

“Are you going to Hengdian?” my seatmate asked me. I said that I was. “I heard it’s fun,” she said.

What is not fun: sitting with your seatmates’ kneecap pushed into your thigh, a water bottle in the front seat pocket poking into your knee, your backpack and bag perched on your lap, being jammed into your kidneys by the collapsing seat of the person in front of you.

According to the article I read, “Hengdian is so small that you can easily find hotels of all kinds and many restaurants.” Also, supposedly, there are Hengdian Studios electric cars and rickshaws to take you where you need to go. Well, not so much. It’s more like a medium-sized town, and when the bus stopped in its center and we all got out, I realized that I had no idea where my hotel was and no idea how to get there. I didn’t see any of these magical electric cars and/or rickshaws.

What I did see was a “modi,” one of those motorized trike vehicles with a tin covering, where you can ride on a wood bench inside. They are of course extremely underpowered and pretty dangerous. Oh well. The driver looked at the address of my hotel and told me it was “very far” and would therefore cost me 30K to get there. I wasn’t sure that I believed her. “Very far” in small Hengdian? But after a halfhearted attempt to find other options, I gave up. Odds were I probably wasn’t going to die in a crash taking one of these things just this once.

Not only are you riding inside of a giant tin can, you are riding on one that is being hammered on, where every bump in the road is a major jolt, and who knew, she was telling the truth when she told me it was “very far,” or “very far” in terms of Hengdian. We bounced along, down rough roads that appeared to be taking us out of town. This can’t be right, I thought. This is supposed to be a four-start hotel with “excellent” ratings on CTrip, and we are heading out into the countryside. Then, down a road lined with…furniture factories. Yeah. Long, warehouse-like buildings advertising mahogany and rosewood furniture.

Then, suddenly: my hotel. An apparition in marble and gilt in the middle of a row of furniture factories.

The name of it was the Hengdian Honton Boutique Hotel. “Honton” is not a word in my Chinese dictionary, but looking at the actual characters, the name has something to do with “rosewood.”  As close as I can figure out this hotel caters to businessmen coming to make deals on furniture. It does not cater much to foreign tourists, and I quickly reached the limits of my Chinese understanding when trying to communicate with the desk clerk, who spoke very quickly and with a heavy local accent. But eventually I made my way to my very nice room, and then, to dinner.

The restaurant was a series of private banquet rooms, and I sat alone in one at the end of the dinner service and drank a Cheerday Beer. I really needed a Cheerday Beer by that point.

After the adventure of getting to Hengdian, the actual studio visit was almost an anticlimax. Not that it wasn’t interesting. I visited the Qing/Ming Dynasty filming base, the one with the giant full-sized replica of the Forbidden City that Zhang Yimou used in his films HERO and CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER. 

After that I wandered around the streets of old Hong Kong.

Filming was mostly done without sound, so tourists clustered around the production sets in close proximity to the filming. 

Other tourist activities included dressing up in costumes for photos and performances in your own movie skits, a blue screen demonstration, horse and archery shows, comedy performances.

When it was time for me to head back to Yiwu, the Hengdian tourist taxis again eluded me, and I ended up in yet another modi back to the part of town where the shuttle buses waited. Hopped on that.
“Oh, you’re back!” It was the same ticket taker as yesterday. “Did you have fun?”
“Yes. A lot of fun.” And I really did. Because sometimes half the fun really is just managing to get there.

Lisaevery other Wednesday...


  1. Your adventures are truly inspiring! Fascinating reading.

    1. Thanks Stan! I didn't have time to write this, but on the bus ride through Yiwu, I met a very nice woman who told me all about the place. Turns out it is a center of manufacture for small goods and rather famous internally for that.

  2. You amaze and inspire me too, Lisa. I might try such a trip, but ONLY if I could speak English. I speak good Italian and decent French, but even in France or Italy all that confusion would have made me mute in all but my mother tongue. My only way to have this kind of adventure in China is vicariously with you. I am so grateful to you for taking us along.

  3. Are you sure you're not MI6? I mean even James Bond wouldn't attempt your journeys without a secret decoder ring equipped with RPG capabilities.

    Again you WOW me, Lisa.

  4. A stranger in a strange land, indeed! I almost broke out in a sweat just reading your piece!

  5. It's really not that hard. You just sorta have to be willing to go with the flow. I will admit, speaking some Mandarin helps, a lot. I got a taste of what it was like being utterly clueless when I was in Russia in February. I couldn't say the simplest things. Well, except for, "Please, I want Russian beer."