Shortly after being posted to Beijing more than two years ago, my first travel destination in China was neighbouring Tianjin. Apart from being taken to a specialty store by the tour guide to buy mahua (fried dough twists) and dried abalone, Tianjin did not leave a deep impression on me. Little would I have expected this seemingly ordinary city to suddenly become the hottest place to visit in China recently.
In late August, a video of a group of Tianjin grandpas diving off the Shizilin Bridge went viral on the internet, but the fad came and went quickly. In less than a month, these “diving grandpas” announced on 6 September in the name of the Shizilin Bridge Divers’ Association that they would stop jumping from the bridge.
A show for the public
According to Chinese media reports and numerous videos circulating online, the area around the Shizilin Bridge attracts hundreds of visitors every weekend, with the bridge and nearby roads packed with people eagerly watching the act. Some netizens have even dubbed the Shizilin Bridge an “8A”-level tourist attraction.
Before diving off the 6-metre-high bridge, some of these grandpas would give a speech, quote from the classics or even spontaneously perform xiangsheng (crosstalk).
Tianjin grandpas have been jumping off the Shizilin Bridge for decades, and it is also common for people in various Chinese cities to swim in the river to beat the summer heat. So why did these “diving grandpas” attract so much attention overnight and even become Tianjin’s calling card?
Compared with the general public swimming in the river, Tianjin grandpas diving off a bridge is far more theatrical. Before diving off the 6-metre-high bridge, some of these grandpas would give a speech, quote from the classics or even spontaneously perform xiangsheng (crosstalk). Spectators have recorded these images on their phones and posted them online, especially on short-video platforms such as Douyin, quickly attracting eyeballs and sparking intense discussion.
More importantly, the diving is spontaneous and exudes the flavour and vitality of Tianjin. The sight of a group of grandpas diving off a bridge plastered with visible signs prohibiting swimming also creates a distinct human landscape that is full of contrast.
China is now rapidly unleashing pent-up demand for travel after the pandemic, with travellers frantically searching for their next travel destination. Over the past few years, China has been developing the tourism industry on a template, generating imitations of old towns and photogenic locations throughout the country, leading to aesthetic fatigue. With more and more tourist attractions that are not distinguishable from one another, the emergence of the incredibly down-to-earth diving grandpas went viral.
...the fad has also led to side effects highlighting the difficult balance between urban management, maintaining vibrancy and creating an internet-popular city.
Tianjin’s diving grandpas have significantly boosted local tourism. In the last two weeks of August alone, the number of tourists visiting The Tientsin Eye increased 22.9%, footfall at the city’s Ancient Culture Street grew 13.1%, while visitors at Tianjin’s Italian Style Town rose 51.8%. Food delivery orders and hotel bookings at the Shizilin Bridge area respectively saw an increase of 13.3% and 16.3% month-on-month.
However, the fad has also led to side effects highlighting the difficult balance between urban management, maintaining vibrancy and creating an internet-popular city.
Boon and bane
After the diving grandpas went viral, all sorts of gimmicks quickly appeared in the area around Shizilin Bridge, becoming a marketing tool for internet popularity. Livestreamers tapped on the diving grandpas to sell goods online, while one enterprising business even brought their alpacas to the bridge as an advertising tactic — visitors could scan a QR code and take a free picture with the animals.
Some tourists also took the plunge. According to Chinese media reports, the local government had to send out rescue teams, with 14 incidents reported in just two days. Some people lost consciousness due to improper diving techniques; others drowned. The local grandpas also could no longer dive freely — many became volunteers instead, helping to maintain order on the bridge and also to discourage tourists from diving attempts.
For the local government, the grandpa diving phenomenon is both boon and bane. On the one hand, it has had real economic impact while raising Tianjin’s profile. On the other hand, these grandpas were blatantly flouting the rules in an area where swimming is forbidden, and even attracted some tourists to imitate them. Under the given circumstances, how the authorities should manage the situation is a tricky issue.
Yet, amid mounting risks of the situation going out of control, the grandpa divers released a statement on 6 September that they will no longer dive off the Shizilin bridge...
The biggest pull of the diving grandpas is that they were not organised by the authorities but an organically formed grassroots culture. Tianjin officials clearly understood this — at first, besides reminding tourists about safety and increasing manpower for the rescue teams, they did not intervene to stop this activity.
Yet, amid mounting risks of the situation going out of control, the grandpa divers released a statement on 6 September that they will no longer dive off the Shizilin bridge, and urged people not to dive there but to “dive at professional indoor facilities open to the public.”
Authorities' handling the situation
On the same day, the Tianjin Municipal Commission of Urban Management also announced on its website that the photo-taking spots and decorations around the Shizilin bridge would undergo safety maintenance, tacitly ending this public activity.
From the Zibo barbecue, to Guizhou’s “Village BA” basketball games, to the diving grandpas of Tianjin, these accidental viral fads all signal that Chinese tourists no longer want standard, run-of-the-mill tourist spots, but seek authentic local flavours of different regions. Local governments have picked up on this, and are putting effort into turning local specialties and culture into tourist attractions, combining it with internet-popular culture to draw in visitors.
The key to post-Covid tourism traffic in China is getting clearer, and the challenge for each region is how to retain that traffic; while attracting tourists, there is a need for flexible management to ensure that local culture does not quickly go sour and become a flash-in-the-pan location for people to “check in”.
This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as “昙花一现的大爷跳水”.
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