On two different visits to an incomplete, abandoned theme park in China I documented a bizarre, expensive, failed project, which of course made for a fantastic location for some men's underwear photoshoots.
In December of 2012 I moved to Beijing, China. I had visited once several years prior and after my most recent stint in Miami started to chip away at my soul and creativity, I knew a drastic change like this would do me good and jolt my senses.
Soon after arriving, I snagged a job teaching adults at a language school, through which I met some great new people, including a fellow American and avid photographer. Conveniently, we lived in the same neighborhood and would hang out pretty frequently, whether it be over beers and chuan (Chinese BBQ) or walking around the old city, exploring and taking photos. Thanks to Grindr, I also met Ray, a Taiwanese guy who was living and working in Beijing. I liked his look and convinced him to let me photograph him once the weather warmed up and I had an interesting outdoor location.
By late March, the snow and cold had mostly subsided, so one weekend a group of us ventured out in search of an unfinished amusement park we'd researched online, named Wonderland. There were 5 of us - my American friend and his Chinese girlfriend (who had a car, lucky for us), Ray, my model for the day and then also the guy I was dating at the time. Even though it was only 20 miles or so from Beijing, it seemed to take forever to get there - mostly because of traffic, but also the anticipation of finding the place. We didn't have much information to go on, but we knew it's general location and that we would be able see it from the freeway. Sure enough, as the excitement grew, we spotted it and made a hasty exit. When we pulled in to the large, empty parking lot we piled out of the car and scoped out the front of the place. The main entrance was boarded up with plywood, but not completely secured, so with some determination we were able to pry a piece back and squeeze through one by one. Once on the other side we all got our cameras ready and set out to explore. I really liked the facade of the building that the entry way opened up to, so Ray and I hung back to get some shots there while the others went on ahead. Behind the cheap medieval facade, the building was just a shell - a bare and empty, unfinished metal structure. We caught up with the other 3 on the second floor, when we heard voices downstairs. With no other way to go, we cautiously made our way back down and were immediately confronted by a group of very angry women. My friend and I were the two laowai (foreigners) in the group, so we let the native speakers sort it out. As it turned out, these women weren't speaking Mandarin (there are hundreds of languages in China), so our group could only pick up some of what they were saying. The gist was they were 'security' who lived there and we were trespassing and they weren't happy, clearly. There was a lot of yelling on their part and on our part just nerves, confusion and a need to get out of there.
The gang angrily escorted us out through the side and before we knew it we were back at the parking lot. They shouted a bit more, to drive the point home (and who doesn't love overkill?) and waved their arms to shoo us away. Despite this glitch, we certainly weren't done with the place, as we needed to see the castle. We decided to walk around to the opposite side of the parking lot, which seemed like fair game and out of the hair of the hot-headed guards.
The Disney knock-off castle was never completed and sat in the back of a large field, amongst crops, weeds and tree stumps. As we made our way along a dirt road that cut through the field, we passed through 2 pillars with painted Chinese characters that roughly translated to 'Stay out or you'll die".
At the castle, Ray and I once again paired off to go get some shots and the other 3 continued on exploring and taking their own. We circled the base looking for a way to climb up, but no such luck. Instead, we found an opening which took us down beneath the structure - like an unfinished basement area with a dirt floor. Once there, we did some simple jeans and shirtless shots and then underwear, before retreating back above ground to the warmth of the sun.
We rejoined the others and explored some other buildings on the property, laughing and recounting the adrenaline rush and excitement from getting in trouble earlier. As the excitement and intrigue started to wane and we all felt enough pictures had been taken, we decided to make our way back to the parking lot and be on our way. All in all, it was a massive success and that day remains one of my favorite, most memorable ones from my time spent in China.
A month later I was back out at Wonderland with some new blood.
I met Leo through another photographer in China and asked him if he'd like to have a photoshoot. He eagerly agreed and I suggested the old theme park. I wanted to try it out again with warmer weather and thought it'd be even better if we had a group shoot, so I asked if he had any friends who'd be game. He made some suggestions and showed me photos of different guys he knew and who'd be willing. We decided on 2 of his classmates from university, Jia from China and Brandon from Canada.
On the day of the shoot we hired a taxi and made the drive out of the city. The taxi dropped us off in the familiar parking lot and we negotiated a price for him to wait for us - we were way the hell out and would never be able to get a taxi back otherwise. A lot had changed in the month since my first visit - the main entrance and facade area I liked so much was gone and they were in the process of demolishing the rest. The castle out in the field was the only thing left alone, so we made our way in that direction. Following the same side road that led around back as before, we passed some construction workers and they asked what we were doing. Leo and Jia told them we were going to take photos by the castle and without any issue they let us go on our way.
Spring had arrived since my last visit, when Ray would take his shirt and jacket off for the shots and then cover back up to keep warm. For this second shoot we did a variety of looks, but the overall theme, let's be honest - came down to underwear and the temperatures were comfortable for it. This shoot was the first time I incorporated gas masks, as part of my so-called 'Underworld' series. The idea for this came from my first few months living in Beijing, which at the time was suffering from crippling, choking air pollution - thick enough to cut on most days. I liked the idea of a stripped down, fit guy wearing little more than a gas mask and while the message was in regards to environmental issues, it later served another purpose as well. Oftentimes the guys I found would be more willing to model for such daring and provocative shots if their faces were covered and their identities concealed. On this day however, there were no concerns about anonymity (and the pollution wasn't even so bad) and everyone was relaxed and at ease - me even more so knowing that we weren't going to get kicked out or chased away by an angry mob.
After a series of jeans, swimwear and underwear shots, I asked if anyone was willing to do nude or implied nude with the gas masks. I wasn't planning on it, especially since the straight guys are usually less willing, but the moment struck me and we had some great energy and creativity flowing. Leo volunteered and loved the idea, which was perfect since he was the best one for it. The shots turned out great, he looks incredible of course and some of the images will be in my upcoming book, 'Beijinger', as well as ones from a follow up shoot he and I did a month later in the city.
When I felt we had taken advantage of every spot we could and got more than enough images, we called it a wrap. As we made our way back through the field and to the taxi, I knew it would be the last time I'd see Wonderland. Soon after, the demolition was complete and there were rumors of a luxury mall or shops being constructed on the site. Strangely enough, the unfinished castle was left standing out in the field, though it has since been painted. Perhaps the ongoing land dispute with the farmers resulted in everyone just walking away and leaving the castle as is, rather than shelling out even more wasted money to remove it. While there have of course been others to visit Wonderland in the years before me and after, I had more visits than most and documented it at 2 different stages. I've seen lots of images of just the castle from others and I certainly went overboard photographing it, myself - I guess because I found it so bizarre and unlike anything I'd seen. There's not as many images of the faux medieval structures that are long gone, but fortunately for me, I did get some, though only a few (damn being kicked out!). Late last year (2021) I was contacted by a popular YouTube channel and invited to contribute to a video they were putting together on Wonderland. The channel showcases abandoned places around the globe, mostly through online research and seeking out contributors who can help fill in some of the blanks and such. If you're interested, here's the video.
And as always, you can see and read more from my various shoots around the world by subscribing to my Patreon: patreon.com/westphillips
More info on Wonderland:
"Wonderland was an unfinished amusement park project located in Chenzhuang Village (陈庄村), China, about 32 kilometres (20 mi) outside of Beijing. Originally proposed and designed to be the largest amusement park in Asia (to have covered 120 acres), construction stopped in 1998 following financial problems with local officials, while a 2008 attempt to start construction again also failed.
The site featured a number of abandoned structures, including the framework of a castle-like building and medieval-themed outer buildings. Land was reclaimed by local farmers to grow their various crops while the site was abandoned.
The abandonment of such a massive construction project raised concerns about the existence of a "property bubble" in China.
The incomplete and abandoned structures were demolished in May 2013, leaving no hope for the abandoned park to ever be finished. While there was no official indication of what would be done with the grounds of where the park once stood, An Feng, Reignwood Group's chief inspector for the company's investment supervision department, stated a "comprehensive luxury product supermarket" would be built on the site, but at that time the project was still going through "planning permission formalities".
Construction on a shopping mall, the Badaling Outlets, was later completed in 2015 and opened to the public on 26 June of that year."