The ‘Foreign Street’ I Never Knew 游逛重庆洋人街

Towards the northern end of Nanan District南岸区 around which the Yangtze bends after flowing past Chaotianmen Docks, there lies a striking oddity of urban planning and subsequent neglect.

Opened way back in 2006, the lure of free rental attracted an army of foreigners to set up shop, offering everything from pubs, clubs, restaurants and popular entertainment.

At the time, Danzish弹子石 was a remote backwater far from Jiefangbei and Jiangbei despite being straight across the river, but poorly connected by bridges and roads.

Nowadays, this has changed completely. The peninsula is truly incorporated into civilisation, with flashy apartments and lively economic scene making properties in this area a hot prospect.

On that first visit, though, the memory imprinted most vividly were the public male urinals. Sets of four cubicles built at intervals along the main drag, with privacy provided by Wild West style double saloon doors hung around waist height. As guests relieved themselves, they each faced a poster of a seductive models holding tape measures and cameras.

There were westerner staffed bars with draught beers, pool tables, dart boards, bowling alleys, you name it! Local tastes were also well catered for, as they could experience the novelty of being served Chinese classics, such as dumplings, or even entire hotpot meals, by smiling North Americans for the most part.

On first hearing of Foreigners’ Street, I pictured baroque architecture, Venetian canals, Parisian cafés, and British pubs serving up cask ales along with fish and chips.

What met my eyes on setting foot here was quite the opposite. It was an odd blend of highly unauthentic Wild West, continental lakeside buildings, and a dystopian version of Alice in Wonderland in the form of a hillside topped with an upside down candy house and shoe dwellings. A flight of concrete steps leads up to these intriguing structures past six foot high models depicting the colourful faces of ghouls and monsters.

After an otherwise fun evening, the sense of unreality was garnished to perfection with a photo by a mural of communist figure heads, Mao, Stalin, Lenin, Marx, the whole works, the management very kindly arranged a ride for us to back to civilisation in Jiefangbei, where we could go our separate ways. Fittingly, our transport was an imported classic American style school bus, a complete take out of Forest Gump. Everyone loved the half hour trip, and by this point there was nothing left that could possibly surprise us.

Unfortunately, the free lease agreements eventually expired, and the foreign legions of entrepreneurs packed up and left for good. With little demand left, some of the empty shop fronts were taken up by tacky food and souvenir outlets, with the rest forsaken to perpetual dereliction.

It was from this point that Foreigners’ Street (FS) fell into steep decline and neglect. Not long after my grand return from Korea, we visited the park only to find dirty run down snack stalls, the once clean lake now a turbid swamp, a mishmash of inane army style shoot-em-up arcades, and the only foreigners in sight a handful of Indian migrants dishing up flying pancakes. The public urinals I was so keen to show a disbelieving guest that day had long been taken down.

The remaining crowd puller in FS is really the waterpark they built inside, but even this is eclipsed by Caribbean Bay on Nanshan Mountain, Watercube Park and the new Maya Beach.

In March 2018, it was announced that FS was to be closed and moved to a new location. Where and when this will be as yet, I haven’t been able to find out.

For Chinese people with no knowledge or experience of foreigners or life abroad, I hate to imagine how they picture the outside world following their visit. Home to the pristine Cotswolds, idyllic Basque Country retreats, or Rhine Valley spa towns, the highlights of Western Europe have been blandished in favour of something bordering the Land of the Smurfs.

Should you have sufficient time and curiosity spare on your travels here, FS is definitely worth exploring a couple of hours, if only to experience the bizarre variety sights with your own eyes. The new bridges and transport links also mean the area is much more accessible than in my early days here.

Don’t feel misled by my slightly negative tone. Despite being a profoundly mystifying anomaly of urban planning, the beauty of Foreigners’ Street lies in its rich contradictions, disorientating juxtaposition of past and present foreign culture, steeped in fiction with a sprinkling of reality.

I have compiled an extensive album of photographs covering all the main points of interest, and more. Please savour the collection,