x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

In China, historic Wuxi puts on quite a show for modern tourists

Around Asia Even towns steeped in history like Wuxi have learned the tricks to attracting tourists, as Effie-Michelle Metallidis is sad to find after longing for a respite from Shanghai's neon frenzy.

The Nine Dragons Bath the Baby Buddha exhibit, one of the unique attractions at the Wuxi Lingshan Buddhist Centre in northern China, is a consequence of the country's rising status as a tourist destination. Effie-Michelle Metallidis for The National
The Nine Dragons Bath the Baby Buddha exhibit, one of the unique attractions at the Wuxi Lingshan Buddhist Centre in northern China, is a consequence of the country's rising status as a tourist destination. Effie-Michelle Metallidis for The National

Baby Buddha is coming out of a lotus flower.

Gilded, the statue is a bright contrast to the black lotus on which it stands, the mechanical petals slowly unfolding as an operatic track swells from hidden speakers.

Fountains shoot up, pummelling the Buddha with streams of finely choreographed adulation.

And then, in a feat of automated mastery that rivals the Dubai Fountain, he begins to turn, his little golden index finger pointing the way up towards enlightenment.

"Patty!" I shout to my friend, demanding an explanation to the Nine Dragons Bath the Baby Buddha exhibit at what had been described as a "modest Buddhist temple" by our tour guide.

I should have learnt by now that nothing in China is modest. A country that hosted the most expensive Olympics to date doesn't shilly-shally when it comes to putting on a show.

But - and this was a vain hope, I know - I had thought that once past the furious neon of Shanghai and the towering apartment cities of its outskirts, past a Suzhou rife with KFCs and Papa Johnses (called "Great John's" here) and the yawning development zones of Hangzhou, historic Wuxi might offer a landscape that hearkened back to the days of old.

But Wuxi's Lingshan Buddhist Centre, home to the bathing baby Buddha, a neon-lit convention dome, and a statue of the world's tallest standing Buddha, quickly dashed that hope.

To be fair, much of historic northern China remains well preserved amid the fervour of development. The dynastic architecture that predates modern skyrises preens along pedestrian streets and stands stalwart between high-rise apartment buildings.

Sharply curved pagodas and masterfully designed gardens abound in the older neighbourhoods of cities such as Wuxi, which have had no choice but to snake around the past as they grow. (In 1950, the estimated population of the historic city was 57,000; today, it numbers over six million.)

But a growing appetite for attracting tourist yuan has led to the growth of some utterly extraordinary sites. Ling Shan is one of them.

Board an electric tram at the entrance, drive past the Mind Cleansing Pond and stop to the right of the Number One Palm in the World. There lies the Sangharam Bo Da La of Lingshan - a monument to Buddhism that looks like French palace meets Cavalli Club.

Baroque embellishments flank heavenly deities in a large dome whose neon lights change colour every seven seconds. At the apex, artificial stars twinkle. I half expect karaoke music - perhaps a pan-flute version of Take My Breath Away - because the multicoloured jade and the murals and the overhead light show have robbed me of speech.

"You know how people tour Versailles today?" Patty says, gazing at the dome. "I wonder if in 100 years people will look back on this and be like: 'Wow. That was classy'."

I'm not sure if "classy" is the word designers had in mind. Not one, not two, but three bombastic attractions are showcased here, the last being the most well-known: China's tallest standing Buddha.

Amitabha Buddha towers at 88 metres. He's made of bronze - a curious choice considering oxidation - and was completed around 13 years ago. That makes him the youngest biggest Buddha in China - bonus points in the Chinese tendency of placing all things in some sort of hierarchy.

"This Buddha is the number one tallest Buddha in China of the number five biggest Buddhas in all of China," affirms Jeffrey, our beleaguered tour guide. He has spent the majority of the day translating the Mandarin screamed out of a microphone by another tour guide into English for me and the two other westerners on this government-sponsored tour, and in the interest of time, he's begun explaining everything in Top 10. "Leshan Buddha in west - oldest Buddha in all of China. Guan Yin - biggest female Buddha in all of China. Tian Tan in Hong Kong - biggest Buddha in eastern China. And Tai Hu Lake" - which this Buddha overlooks - "third largest freshwater lake in all of China."

I raise my eyebrows, trying to look reasonably impressed. What I really want to ask is if this dome has the most neon lights in all the Buddhist domes of China, and if the baby Buddha is washed by the fastest-spraying hoses in all of China. But I refrain.

After all, we are visiting the number one tea plantation in all of China in a few short hours, and I need Jeffrey to pace himself.

Catch up on Effie-Michelle Metallidis' adventure at Around Asia.