Chinese Freak Shows: An Age-Old New Years Tradition

Two-headed ladies! Ladies with tails! Big-headed ladies and snake-eating ladies and elephants, too!

All this, for only 75 cents!

Every year, for Chinese New Year, these tents appear across the country. This one was in rural Shanxi Province. Outside, an old lady counted her renminbi in the cold. She shouted out “Five kuai!”

She completely ignored the monkey on the swing.

He was surrounded by a crowd of fans, holding a lit Zhonghua cigarette and clutching a bottle of melamine-tainted milk. Someone passed him an empty pack of smokes, and he chewed on it. He was cold and bored.

We’d seen freak shows before. We’d been to the Kingdom of the Dwarfs in Kunming, and fed live chickens to tigers in Haerbin, but those were majestic compared to this. This was a shack tent in the winter desert outside of Pingyao.

A few feet away, a teenage boy oversaw a roundabout in the dirt.

A man offered live animals if you could hoop them.

And this woman, inside her tent, had a freak show.

She promised scenes of smiling, dancing, snake-eating women. She delivered ugliness.

The tent was dark inside. Families moved from one display to the next, looking at animals in small rusty cages. There were turkeys, rabbits, guinea pigs and a dirty box of snakes.

A dusty stuffed croc, propped up on two crates, was nailed to a board.

And for a climax, a row of deformed pickled punks sat in dusty jugs.

I’m not going to include close-up photos. It was horrible. Several of the jugs were plastic Chupa Chups and Mentos bottles, the formaldehyde evaporated. “Two-headed baby,” read one. “Twins,” read another. A third read something like, “Born like it’s been beaten.”

Just like at the tiger park, Woo had tears in her eyes.

“Can we leave,” she said. “Now?”

We did. This was no way to bring in the New Year. But as we left, more families pushed their way in. Small children ran over to the pickled babies. One had a smile on his face. “Daddy, look!”

Rather than this ugly ending for the new year, I’ve added some fun pictures of the signs outside a Beijing freak show, below. They’re so filled with promise, no?

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2 Responses to Chinese Freak Shows: An Age-Old New Years Tradition

  1. Aaron says:

    That’s super intense. Damn! Amazing that this stuff still happens in China. Head out of the big cities, and it’s like nothing has changed. Oh and good shots!

    • Dean Pickles says:

      Exactly!!! Somewhere in storage (sniff!) I still have your awesome photo from one of the old Chinese freak shows… gorgeous, it was!

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