In this paper, Chimelong Ocean Kingdom in Zhuhai is considered an aestheticised space for the growing Chinese middle class. Located within the booming and fast-urbanising Pearl River Delta, the theme park is a sizeable project consisting of rides, marine mammal enclosures and a well-equipped state-of-the-art circus. Utilising ethnography, including visitor interviews, and discourse analysis of websites, mobile apps and promotional materials, the theme park is found to deploy animal motifs in three key ways: as spectacular backdrops for amusement rides, as objects of biodiversity-based edutainment and as highly personified agents in visitor relations. Building on existing literature on decontextualised animal display – where emphasis on the provision of a natural habitat is replaced by simulated and actual proximity of animals to the visitors – I argue that the ‘out-of-situ’, cuteified and hyperreal stagings of Chimelong's animals have been shaped by two further China-specific processes. The first is the engagement with the theme park space as a sanitised and safe environment for a then one-child policy inspired child-centred visitation. The second refers to the retail-oriented consumerist experiences demonstrated by the new Chinese middle class. Both processes have brought about an aestheticising endeavour in line with the idealisation of other (Chinese) middle-class spaces, and have positioned Chinese theme parks as key nodes in our understanding of leisure and tourism spaces and of middle-class landscapes in contemporary China. Such an examination is made at a juncture where and when abuse of marine mammals is allegedly on the rise, and sheds light on the social processes shaping the popularity of such experiences in contemporary China.
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