China's delightful teddy bear museum

By Rod Pascoe

A Chinese museum has turned its beady eye on the world's great works of art, writes Rod Pascoe.

Teddy bears in Venice at the Teddy Bear Museum on Hainan Island. Photo / Rod Pascoe
Teddy bears in Venice at the Teddy Bear Museum on Hainan Island. Photo / Rod Pascoe

If Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo or Rodin could visit the Teddy Bear Museum on Hainan Island in China, they'd surely laugh to see how their famous works have been interpreted.

Some of the greatest paintings and sculptures in history have been reimagined, with teddy bears taking the place of characters that have stayed in the memories of generations of art lovers.

Two giant teddy bears at the entrance to the Teddy Bear Museum. Photo / Rod Pascoe
Two giant teddy bears at the entrance to the Teddy Bear Museum. Photo / Rod Pascoe

Granted, it's impossible to get the smile of the Mona Lisa just right when the woman depicted is a cuddly bear, set out from the canvas in cloth, rather than a Florentine merchant's wife.

And the sight of teddies replacing the Virgin Mary and the crucified Christ in the Pieta takes some getting used to. You do have to wonder, too, how much thinking could be going on in the head of the marble teddy in The Thinker.

A teddy bear in a reimagining of Rodin's The Thinker. Photo / Rod Pascoe
A teddy bear in a reimagining of Rodin's The Thinker. Photo / Rod Pascoe

The museum is part of the brand-new Centreville outdoor mall near Haikou, the capital of Hainan, China's only tropical province. The sprawling retail centre, with three towering major-brand hotels attached, is part of the humungous Mission Hills development, spread over 23sq km.

This includes the ultra-luxury Mission Hills hotel - which has become known around the world for its 10 golf courses and thermal spa resort and a Movie World-type attraction. A Wet 'n' Wild water-fun park will soon be added.

Teddy bears shown in a display of Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Photo / Rod Pascoe
Teddy bears shown in a display of Beijing's Tiananmen Square. Photo / Rod Pascoe

The teddy bear attraction's theme, "One belt, one road", tilts at the strategy of Chinese President Xi Jinping to promote international trade. Acknowledging the Silk Road that first linked China with the outside world, numerous displays of teddies in traditional costume are set against scenes from major hubs on the route.

Starting at the Great Wall, the journey takes in Xian (home of the terracotta warriors) and the "Stans" - Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan - and goes all the way out to Istanbul, Moscow, Athens, Rotterdam, Duisburg (Germany) and Venice.

Teddy bears on the Silk Road. Photo / Rod Pascoe
Teddy bears on the Silk Road. Photo / Rod Pascoe

In keeping with Xi's policy, the 21st-century "Maritime Silk Road" extends to Nairobi, Colombo, Jakarta and Hanoi. And it all ends up back at Haikou.

The museum is intended not only to entertain young visitors but also to excite and educate them about the world, and you can see from the look of delight and awe on their faces that it does the job well.

Teddy bears take the place of humans in this reimagining of Botticelli's The Birth of Venus. Photo / Rod Pascoe
Teddy bears take the place of humans in this reimagining of Botticelli's The Birth of Venus. Photo / Rod Pascoe

From the moment the King of Rock 'n' Roll - Elvis - has greeted them at the entrance, the lessons begin. Each of the geographical displays presents information on the history, culture, food, tourist attractions and famous sons and daughters of the city or region depicted.

A teddy bear as Charlie Chaplin at the Teddy Bear Museum. Photo / Rod Pascoe
A teddy bear as Charlie Chaplin at the Teddy Bear Museum. Photo / Rod Pascoe

Further on, the museum presents the history of teddy bears, which I discovered began not with US President Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt, as I had always thought, but with a little wheelchair-bound German girl called Margarete Steiff. Her poliomyelitis prevented her from playing outside with other kids, so she took up sewing toys to pass the time. She later founded a toy-making company that created the first bear, in 1902. (Later that year, a New York sweet-shop owner - inspired by the famous incident involving Roosevelt's refusal to shoot a tied-up American black bear - put a stuffed bear in his shop window and called it "Teddy".)

There's also a display of some of the oldest teddy bears still in existence, including "Gerard", aged 111. An accompanying photo shows his original owner, a little girl.

A teddy bear as Vincent van Gogh after he severed his ear, Teddy Bear Museum. Photo / Rod Pascoe
A teddy bear as Vincent van Gogh after he severed his ear, Teddy Bear Museum. Photo / Rod Pascoe

I particularly liked the displays showing teddies "in character", including Charlie Chaplin, Albert Einstein, golfers and military figures. The one that especially appealed to me was Johnny Depp in the movie Edward Scissorhands, because that was the first film I ever saw with my firstborn, Adam, now aged 28.

A teddy bear Elvis Presley at the Teddy Bear Museum. Photo / Rod Pascoe
A teddy bear Elvis Presley at the Teddy Bear Museum. Photo / Rod Pascoe

Even to a 63-year-old Kiwi whose kids reckon he's entering his second childhood, it was all a huge delight. I enjoyed it so much I went back a second time.

A teddy bear as the Mona Lisa at the Teddy Bear Museum. Photo / Rod Pascoe
A teddy bear as the Mona Lisa at the Teddy Bear Museum. Photo / Rod Pascoe

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Further information: The Teddy Bear Museum is at Mission Hills Centreville Mall in Haikou on Hainan Island, China. See China Travel Service for deals for Hainan.

Getting there: Cathay Pacific, with sister airline Dragonair, flies from Auckland to Hainan.

- NZ Herald

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