Volume 1, Issue 1 Fall 2011

Forbidden Photographs: The Last Days of Splendid China

Photographs by Gary Monroe

Conceived as a cultural theme park, Florida Splendid China was built on seventy-six acres of ranch land a few miles west of Disney World and modeled after the popular Splendid China in Shenzhen, near Hong Kong. At a cost of one hundred million dollars to construct, Splendid China opened in 1993 offering tourists miniature views of Chinese landmarks including the Great Wall, the Terracotta Army, and the Forbidden City. These classic Chinese edifices were meticulously constructed at a 1:10 scale, depicting in detailed miniature the wonders of an ancient culture. Acrobats and dancers entertained visitors while music flowed from speakers hidden in manicured bushes. At the same time, Tibetans and pro-democracy advocates flocked to the site demonstrating against China's human rights abuses. Protesters carried placards and hoisted banners on poles that reached above the attraction's privacy walls.

Tourists did not flock to Florida Splendid China. While the Greater Orlando's internationally renowned theme parks drew in excess of 100,000 visitors a day, Splendid China attracted as few as a hundred. The quiet quirky experience of Splendid China could not compete with Disney World and Universal Studios where families chose to spend their time and money. Post 9-11 economics finished it off. The park closed in 2003. Its assets were auctioned off within a year, leaving the miniature buildings in a forbidden wasteland decaying in the Florida tropics.

Forgotten as an attraction, Splendid China was rediscovered by trespassers. Curious skateboarders, videographers, and thrill-seekers routinely breached the chain-link fences. The more energetic swung sledgehammers against the architectural replicas, damaging or destroying everything that was nailed down. Others spray-painted the statues with graffiti or created YouTube videos. What vandals did not deface and demolish, Florida's fast growing vegetation smothered in vines. The once meticulously manicured gardens became overgrown and unruly, obscuring what remains of the monuments to 3,000 years of imperial splendor. Splendid China now looks post-apocalyptic. As security guard Rubin Lopez said while commenting on his job, "It's like you're that last man on Earth here."

All photographs taken in 2009 by Gary Monroe and are archivally-processed gelatin silver prints.