Outside the Louvre in Paris, there’s a sign in Mandarin which tells visitors not to defecate in the surrounding grounds. This sign is only written in Mandarin Chinese. No other nationality, it appears, needs to be reminded where it is and is not appropriate to shit in the vicinity of metropolitan France’s art museums. Every other nation on earth understands implicitly the social contract they're signing up to: that, in exchange for their continued participation in art, visitors must shit only within the white porcelain bowls located inside the designated toilet zones. Not on the pavements. Not even in the bins, or on the breakfast bar of their hotel, or between the tits of a passing waitress. Just the toilets, thanks.
At home, China already has a problem with street defecation, which dovetails nicely with the endemic public-spitting problem that makes most visitors openly retch (thankfully, open-retching is also socially permissible). It seems that, when they go abroad, certain members – not all of them, it must be said – of the Chinese populous are taking that problem with them. It’s not great PR, all told. Last week, China’s deputy premier Wang Yang aimed his wrath at the “uncivilised behaviour” of his countrymen – which, he continued, had harmed the nation’s image. Yang blamed the “poor quality and breeding” of the average Chinese tourist. “They make a racket in public places, carve words at scenic spots, cross the road when the light is red, spit, and do other uncivilised things,” Wang lamented. “This is detrimental to the image of the country's people and leaves a bad impression.”
Hence, the Politburo is planning to create a tourism law, one that would compel the Chinese to behave “in accordance with local customs”. It’s timely. For years we’ve been told, “the Chinese are coming”, but only now are they starting to arrive in real numbers – last year, France welcomed 900,000 of them. By 2015, that’s projected to jump to five million. Chinese visitors to the US are apparently going to rise by 232 percent. In 2012, China overtook the Germans to become the globe’s top tourism spenders by whacking an extra 43 percent on what they spent in 2011. Or maybe they just used the foreign currency to wipe their arses with.
Wang’s words came at the same time as his fellow countryman Ding Jinhao was immortalising himself on the walls of an ancient Egyptian temple at Luxor. With a stone, the 15-year-old carved “Ding Jinhao was here” into the 3,500-year-old building, causing a fresh wave of national shame in his homeland. “Why there are so many citizens who go abroad and humiliate us?” wailed TV reporter Xuan Kejiong. “How many generations will it take to change this kind of behaviour?”
In Thailand, the tourist invasion has been a political issue ever since a low-budget Chinese film called Lost In Thailand created a mini-boom in Chiang Mai tours. “Chinese tourists tend to drive speedily on the wrong side of the road,” one resident complained to Thailand’s English-language paper The Nation. “And often go against traffic on one-way streets. Chinese tourists also often stop in the middle of busy intersections – just to argue among themselves about directions. Some hotel and guesthouse operators are turning them away because they say Chinese tourists often rent a room for two, but stay overnight in a group of four or five.”
The paper went on to publish a countdown of the Chinese’s worst sins:
– A tendency to not flush the toilet.
– Flouting traffic laws when driving, riding a bicycle, or parking their car.
– Being loud, even in five-star hotels.
– Littering, spitting, queue jumping.
– Allowing children to defecate in public pools.
– Terrible English-language skills that lead to difficulties in communication.
In the Maldives, one hotel started taking kettles out of the rooms of Chinese tourists, because they kept using them to boil instant noodles in. Some didn’t stop at noodles. They cooked shellfish, too. After the whistle was blown by a Chinese employee, the story caused a storm in China. Boycotts were organised, and the hoteliers were forced into grovelling retreat.
Even right next door, the Koreans, who already know a thing or two about Chinese interference, are getting increasingly cheesed-off. Seol’s Ewha Women’s University has been flooded by dozens of Chinese trespassers wandering onto their campus. The name of the place translates loosely into Chinese as “something that brings a benefit”, so superstitious honeymooners have been turning up with their cameras to have their wedding photos taken there, gurning in the cafeterias in lacy frocks, despite all the newly-installed “No Trespassing” signs.
This swathe of poor tourist report cards makes it sound like vast packs of Chinese sightseers are marauding across the planet, spitting and shouting, cutting in line while boiling lobsters in the Teasmade and spelling out "YOLO" on The Rosetta Stone with their own shit. All over the world, it seems that the Chinese are becoming the new Americans when it comes to being global reps for vulgarity and rudeness. Everyone needs to let off a little steam occasionally by feeling resentful towards a global hegemon, and just as they’re catching up to the US in terms of economic power, the Chinese are catching up in terms of being ethnic punchbags.
The problem with this is that: a) as a nation that has quadrupled its income over the last decade, you’re dealing almost exclusively with people who aren't used to being abroad, and b) as a consequence, the Chinese don’t particularly know how to holiday. They are seldom to be seen playing beach-bat with the kids, or reading Dan Brown in a sun lounger, because they don’t switch off like that. The high-flyers who make it out don’t strictly “do” downtime. Hence you find them shuffling around beachfronts in packs, wondering what exactly they’re meant to be doing when the answer is right in front of them. They’ve got the money. So they’re going on holiday “because they can”.
Theirs was a generation raised in the awful shadow of the Cultural Revolution – who often had aeons of good manners wiped clean from them, only to be replaced with a few shallow algorithms about being a good little communist. And now even that has bled away, what you’re looking at is the purest noveau riche you’ll ever see. A new consumer class that started from the bottom, and now that they’re approaching the top, inevitably feel that more is more. As with any nouveau riche, it can look from the outside that they seem to want little more from life than to be respected for their raw spending power.
And this is something in which we can certainly oblige. All these jokes about faecal fondnesses will make an excellent psychic defence against our relegation in the world’s pecking order. Right now, the Chinese are pretty much single-handedly keeping the European luxury goods market alive, and that’s all we’re still selling. They have bought Givenchy and Dolce like they are going out of fashion. They love Jaguar and Chateauneuf Du Pape and Talisker. As Europe itself becomes the sick man of Europe, the Chinese ascent to global tourism kings in 2012 marked the turn of the tide of patronage from West to East. Throughout the next decade, it’s going to be us barefoot and crying out in pidgin Mandarin to them: “You want Smythson, mister? You like the Yardley? Me give you Burberry good price all the time. You’ll see, very good.”
We may well be under invasion from ill-mannered Chinese tourist hordes, but our reaction to it says just as much about our own insecurities as it does any concept of intrinsic Han coarseness.
Follow Gavin on Twitter: @hurtgavinhaynes