So you’ve been watching Legend of Fu Yao (or any other Chinese drama) and maybe at some point have thought to yourself, “Oh, I would love to go there and visit that palace or that garden or walk those streets.” Well, if you have a visa to visit China and a couple days to spare, you can visit Hengdian World Studios and see many of the places featured on the series. I’ve been fortunate enough to have visited Hengdian twice and I’m happy to show you around.
Hengdian World Studios started in the 1990s as a pet project of Xu Wenrong. He had grown up in the farming town of Hengdian back when the villages pooled their money to buy a single film projector to display movies for the whole town to watch. He eventually started a factory that made him rich and allowed him to invest the money to build a set for a production company that was looking for a place to film. That first set is now known as the Hong Kong and Guangzhou Street scenic area and the movie filmed was called The Opium War.
Hengdian has grown since then with 9 scenic areas, various exhibitions and a theme park open to the public as well as even more filming locations not open to the public, sound stages and other production facilities, and the town continues to grow. The farming community has become an industry town with farmers and their families now building sets, props, making costumes, training horses, working on production crews and even being movie extras and stuntmen. While several movies have filmed there, you will recognize many of their scenic areas the most if you watch a lot of costume and historical dramas. I first heard of it when I saw photos Jiro Wang posted from there as he was filming “Rakshasa Street” which is what inspired me to go there the first time last year. I fell in the love with the place and was happy to make a return trip earlier this year.
The first time I went to Hengdian, the original plan had been that my friend in Shanghai would go with me, but at the last minute she couldn’t make it so I decided to take myself and my six months of weekend Mandarin classes up to visit. It was definitely a comedy of errors that included me discovering that no one I met spoke English except for scam taxi drivers who wouldn’t leave me alone, almost not making it back to the train to Shanghai in time thanks to some confusion over the destination on my ticket (I wanted Yiwu train station, they gave me Yiwu airport), testing the patience of a very kind tourist center employee, one desperate call to my friend who, luckily, was not in a work meeting and could translate and help me get checked into a hotel, and a lot of wild gesturing and pointing at a huge map of Hengdian just to get tickets to the park. But I managed to make it through and had a fun, albeit short first visit.
The first thing I noticed about Hengdian was the size. I’ve been working in Los Angeles in the post production industry for a while now and have been to all the studios here, but nothing here had prepared me for the sheer size of Hengdian. It’s five times the size of Universal Studios. Even Disneyland (including Downtown Disney and California Adventure) is dwarfed by it.
Unlike the studios in LA, Hengdian is not one location, but several scattered all over town, with more being built further outside. If you only have one day, you’ll only be able to see about three scenic areas (preferably ones that are in close proximity to one another). And most of the scenic areas would require about three hours at least for you to be able to see everything in them. (Two hours if you rent a pedi-bike or walk fast and don’t explore too much.) And fortunately they do have regular buses to take you to all of them.
The scenic areas are amazing in the level of detail. Plus, unlike the LA studios, filming will occur right in the middle of these areas without too much of a buffer for fans who want to watch them work. Every place I went to, there was at least one production filming in some section or another, and it wasn’t too hard to take pictures or make videos as they filmed.
But the best part is that you can just walk into so many of those buildings and explore – stand on the balconies, explore the rooms and discover newly built or just recently used sets, climb up to the top levels and check out the views and walk the palace ramparts.
For the fans of Fu Yao (and other costume and historical dramas) here’s a little guide to the locations you see often on the shows. While I may not have recognized locations in Fu Yao from all these areas, I’m sure there may be a few that come up eventually (or even some that I’ve missed).
This palace is one of the most iconic locations in Chinese dramas. When Yuwen Yue and the Handsome Five of Chang’an are called to the Emperor’s Palace in “Princess Agents” or when the King of Qin comes stumbling out of the palace after killing his beloved Gongsun Li in “The King’s Woman”, you’ve been looking at the 99 steps of the Palace of Emperor Qin.
Across from the steps is another area used as the prison in “Princess Agents” and the part of the palace in “King is Not Easy” as well as the covered walkways frequently seen in many dramas.
But even before you get to the main entrance to the palace, you have to pass through a very familiar walkway that also appears in so many dramas (see the palace battle in “Eternal Love” and numerous scenes in the Tribes and Empires series).
And beyond the steps are more familiar walkways and staircases, and even a grand throne room where you can pay to dress up as a member of the royal family and have your photo taken on the throne.
This place is more commonly known as being a replica of the Forbidden City. I’ve been to both and have to admit that I prefer the fake one, mostly because I’m not a fan of huge crowds. Though it’s not an exact replicate, it’s still amazing in its size. And on either side of the main palace section there are many different village streets, houses, prisons, training grounds and other areas.
The execution grounds from “The Prince of Lan Ling” were easy to spot next to a tower alongside the palace and, on my last trip there, I watched them rehearse a fight scene for another show, complete with crane to help some of the guys make those amazing high jumps.
But my favorite part of the Palace is the Princess Gardens in the back. The entrance to the dungeon where Xiao Qi is held captive by Qi Zhen in “Legend of Fu Yao” and where Duo Miao and Xiao Ruyi hide from the Prince’s soldiers in “Let’s Shake It, ET” are here and they also conceal the entrances to the tunnels (bring a flashlight) where Fu Yao brings a wounded Zong Yue, or Yuwen Yue and Chu Qiao get trapped behind the dragon stone and more.
The spot where Qi Zhen kills one of the Xuan Yuan princes and the bridge where Chu Qiao and her sisters watched Madam Song drown is here as well as the buildings where Tan’er and the Eighth Prince face off against the possessed Crown Prince in “Eternal Love” or where Xia Chun Yu gets drunk after Yao Yao leaves him in “Cinderella Chef”. I could just wander around there for hours and explore all the buildings, nooks and crannies. It’s one of my favorite spots.
Taking its name from a painting of a riverside red lantern festival, this scenic area is easily one of the most popular for production companies. Both times I went there almost half the park was sectioned off for filming or building sets for one show or another – sometimes right across the street from each other. (I was there while they were filming the second season of Eternal Love so I’m sure something I saw there will end up being in the show.)
The first half of “Cinderella Chef”, the scenes in town were filmed almost entirely here, with most scenes filmed around the lakeside buildings, bridges and covered patios that will be very familiar to C-drama fans.
In “Legend of Fu Yao”, the Double Lantern festival scenes on the bridge and the streets of the capital were all filmed here.
For fans of “Sparrow” and “Guardian”, some of the streets and buildings may look familiar. This area is where they film a lot of the Republican dramas. While I was visiting there, I ended up accidentally walking right into a shot as they were filming soldiers marching down a street and got a very blurry photo from afar.
This is one of the scenic areas I saw very little of as I was late getting there and only had 45 minutes to explore before it closed. I recognized some of the white buildings in scenes from “Cinderella Chef” and there were signs up about it being used for the series “My Own Swordsman”. There is a small watertown section that looked vaguely familiar to me as well.
The most familiar part of the Chinese Culture Park is a little nook that is closed off to the public, but you can still look through the locked gate to check out this spot where Yuwen Yue trained Chu Qiao, Tan’er slept while giving off the energy from the Orb, where Yao Yao finally found her way back to her own time, but left Chun Yu behind or Ji Man carried Da Xi when she wouldn’t give him a piggyback ride.
There’s also this open courtyard that I saw in a clip from “The Flame’s Daughter” (featuring Lai Yi aka Zong Yue in “Legend of Fuyao”) and which I’m sure I’ve seen in other shows before, but can’t place.
But the crowning glory is this huge Three Religions Tower that has a special tunnel entrance (again, needed a flashlight because it was too dark for me to wander through) and an elevator in the center tower that you can take up to the top. I don’t think I’ve seen it in any shows yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised. There are also a number of walkways that I’m sure were used in “Let’s Shake It, ET”.
As long as you aren’t too troubled by heights, this cliffside destination overlooking Hengdian is definitely one of the most amazing spots. I do have a fear of heights, but still sucked it up to visit here with only some minor panic attacks in some certain spots. The day I went up it was raining and cloudy so I couldn’t see as much of the city of Hengdian as I would have liked, but it still was worth it as I was practically the only one up there. There’s a hiking trail that leads up there as well the cable cars in case you feel like getting extra exercise. I’m saving that for my next visit.
This is the smallest scenic area in Hengdian and you could see it all within an hour. I have recognized the temple from time to time in some series, most recently in “Cinderella Chef” and also the spot where Abu Cha Cha tried to find Buddha in “Let’s Shake It, ET”. But I don’t think it’s used as much as the other scenic areas.
They are also working on a replica of the Bund and Shanghai area circa the 1930s and 40s as I’m sure they want to provide more filming options besides the Hong Kong and Guangzhou Street area.
I’m sure there’s so much more I’ve missed, but I wanted to give you just a little taste of the wonder that is Hengdian. Hopefully you’ll get a chance to visit if you haven’t already.
- Know some basic Chinese and have a good translation app to help you out. – Very few people speak English, even at the tourist center. So being able to to say things like “how much is this” and knowing how to count to the hundreds, being able to say “I would like that” while pointing at the food item you want (or know how to ask for foods you like – I’m really good at ordering pork noodles and large skinny vanilla lattes now), telling your cab or bus driver “I want to go there” while pointing to a map or handing them a print out in Chinese of the address you need to go to, and even being able to asking the hotel clerk “where is the ATM” will help you out quite a bit. (That’s as much as I knew my first visit and I managed to get around pretty easily.)
- Give yourself more than one day. – I would suggest three days minimum, but 5 days ideally, depending on how much you want to see.
- The bus routes have minimal English with all locations only in Chinese – Take a picture of the route signs, match up the characters with the characters of the scenic area on the map that you want to go. The 1A and 1B bus do the same circular route to and from the tourist center past the main 8 scenic areas, each going in the opposite direction.
- Have your map handy before boarding the bus – sometimes the drivers will ask you, in Mandarin, where you are going. Be ready to point to the area you want to visit if you can’t pronounce it and they are usually good about stopping and waving at you to get off. But if they don’t ask, be sure to watch for your stop (there are often big signs that will help you identify your stop) and then ring the bell by the back door so that the driver will stop. The buses don’t stop unless there are waiting passengers at the stop or a passenger waiting to get off. (And the bus signs say every 12 minutes, but expect to wait up to 20 minutes (and 30 if it’s around lunch time).
- Be patient!! – Things will go wrong, you’ll get tired and frustrated, you won’t be able to see everything, there will be a late bus that will annoy you and you won’t be able to enjoy yourself if you rush or get easily frustrated. My second visit to Hengdian, I thought I’d planned it so well and was going to see four scenic areas a day. And then I couldn’t find a bus at one place, was late to the next area with barely an hour to see anything, my feet hurt from walking across town and I was miserable. When I slowed down and just stuck with three nearby areas and gave myself more time to see each, I was less stressed and enjoyed myself more and had a better time.
- Group your visits to nearby scenic areas when possible or allot yourself plenty of travel time between each area – The areas are only open between 8 am and 5 pm each day which seems like a lot, but that gives you just 3 hours per area, not to mention travel time. Fortunately some of the areas are really close together. Dazhi Temple, Emperor Qin’s Palace and the Riverside Festival are all within walking distance of each other. The Qing and Ming Dynasty, Hong Kong and Guangzhou Streets and Rocky Grottos are also grouped next to each other. But to go to other places, it could take up to an hour of travel time to get there depending on how the buses are running and how far it is.
- Wear comfortable walking shoes – While some of the areas offer pedi-bikes for you to ride around the park, there are restrictions on where you can go and there are some places that won’t have them at all so be prepared to walk a lot. At one point I ended up actually walking across the city (due to me not realising that if I just stood on the corner and waved, the buses would just stop for me).
- Be prepared to take a lot of photos – I maxed out the storage on my iCloud with all the photos and videos I took. And it was worth it!
- If you buy tickets at the park, do some math before getting the group ticket. – I added it up and realised that if I went to the eight main scenic areas, paying for individual tickets was cheaper than getting the group ticket which gets you into just three scenic areas.
- When traveling to Hengdian you have to go via bus from Yiwu City or Hangzhou. If you have a choice, go to Hengdian from the Hangzhou airport or train station as it’s a bit more straightforward than going via Yiwu City despite the slightly longer trip. Plus the Hengdian Tourist Center has a help desk and wait area especially for those going to Hangzhou so that you don’t have to worry about ended up on the wrong bus by accident.
Qing Ming Shang He Tu and Palace of Emperor Qin
Qing and Ming Dynasties
Hong Kong and Guangzhou Streets and Folk Residence Exhibition Museum
60 Minutes Australia feature on Hengdian