Disney wealth meets Shanghai poverty: Will anything change?

SHANGHAI, CHINA – Dogs run wild. A goat eats from a pile of trash. Villagers ride bicycles past muddy gardens, broken windows and laundry drying in the afternoon heat.

This village sits just off a freeway where the signs are marked with Mickey Mouse ears.

A woman fills a pail of water from a broken pipe less than a mile from the Enchanted Storybook Castle, which is the heart of the $5.5 billion Shanghai Disneyland.

This scene — gleaming wealth next to traditional poverty — is a more stark version of something that’s been true for decades in Anaheim, where families still live in by-the-week motels just blocks from the happiest place on earth.

But, in Shanghai at least, the arrival of Disneyland might change the desolation.


The port city of 24 million — the biggest in the world — is in the midst of an economic boom. In many parts of Shanghai, the businesses, entertainment and housing could be mistaken for Laguna Niguel or Costa Mesa. There are gated communities called “Cambridge” and “Hamptons.”

We spent a Friday evening sitting outside at a restaurant in the Kerry Parkside Center, which didn’t look much different than the Irvine Spectrum or The District in Tustin.

The wealth is in the city and in the 963-acre Shanghai Disney Resort.

The poverty is in the nearby villages.

“In China, the quality of social services and the depth of infrastructure reduces quite significantly – and quite suddenly – when one gets outside of urban areas,” said David Wang, a professor at Washington State University who is writing a book called “A Philosophy of Chinese Architecture Past, Present, Future,” which is scheduled to be released next year.

“This is one of the many differences between Chinese material culture with what is normative in the U.S. … We are enculturated to see a certain economic level of sustenance with a set of neatly arranged items of material culture – manicured lawns, dogs on leashes, McDonald’s and ShopKo down the street, etc.

“But contentment of life does not necessarily have to come with trimmed yards, two-car garages, and everything just so.”

Wang said the decay of the infrastructure in rural Chinese communities is “at crises proportions.” The size of the demographic shift from rural to urban areas in China is unprecedented in the history of the world, Wang said.

“For the past 12 years, the central government’s annual report has identified ‘rural revitalization’ as its number one domestic priority,” Wang said.

“Attempts at revitalization range anywhere from tax and other monetary benefits given to rural populations, provision of health insurance and health care, subsidies for construction and house maintenance, and the like.”

The presence of Disneyland might help the Chinese government diminish poverty.

“The current Chinese leadership aims to wipe out (rural) poverty in 2021, six years from now,” said Wenshan Jia, a professor and fellow at Chapman University.

A second goal, Jia said, is to make all of China “a fully modernized country by 2049,” in time for the 100th anniversary of communist rule.

Shanghai Disneyland was built in a rural area of Pudong, the name for the city’s eastern district. Jia is interested to see how the theme park effects the economics of nearby villages, noting that the freeway and subway built to accommodate Disney guests also will bring more commerce to those communities.

“It is predicted that land around Disney Shanghai will become much more precious once Disney there is open for business,” Jia said.

“My guess is that those villagers are waiting to be paid a lot of money by developers so they will move away.”


A line of tall trees blocks any view of Disneyland that might be had in the village. The only evidence of the popular neighbor is a Mickey Mouse poster that hangs in the window of a tiny market.

Rosie Zhang, a Shanghai resident, said Disneyland and Disney storytelling will help Chinese people in the future more than can be appreciated right now.

“Chinese people are proud to have Disneyland built in our soil,” Zhang said.

“Everybody has a dream. Chinese people have worked very hard for the past two decades to catch up with the western world … Once Chinese people have money, they are looking for something they missed during their childhood,” she added.

“It is our moment to make our dream come true.”

In the days immediately after Disneyland opened in the city, the village’s streets were buzzing with activity on roads barely wide enough for cars.

But, look beyond the bustle, and you could see what’s been permanent for years. The gray, brown and white stucco buildings have metals bars on their first-floor windows. Next to the road, somebody who needs it is growing corn and watermelon.

A look back at satellite maps from 2007 and 2008 show that Disneyland was built where at least a couple similar villages existed.

For the locals, that must seem like a very long time ago.

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