“You put a foreigner in front of a building and everything is different,” Yana says in the documentary. New developments in the third- and fourth-tier cities on the outskirts were being advertised as “international cities” that would follow the path of Shanghai and Beijing, where foreign investment and businesspeople would help create a bustling economy. And to show that the developers and local officials indeed had those foreign connections, laowais were bused in from nearby cities and presented as famous artists or top executives from rich and “exotic” countries. They were really just random people that agents picked off the streets.
What does this “city image industry” look like?
Basically, it's a handful of marketers promoting cities, especially the new ones built in the late 2000s. The cities have these kind of spectacles that they put on for visitors, competing against each other to show the highest GDP growth and high levels of economic development.
One gig I did with Yana that never made the film was this kind of fake Olympics. One of the best ways to show that a city has made it on the map is by holding international sporting events. And often, Yana would get a lot of foreigners to pretend to be athletes. At one event in a very remote area of rural Chongqing, there was this water-sport competition. She brought, I think, 30 foreigners, and half were reporters who had been paid to film it. There wasn't much of an audience—just villagers—but these officials came on stage and gave these speeches about how this was a proud day in the history of sports. Then we went and did a river race that looked utterly unprofessional.
But the “press” filmed it, and the video came out pretty professional. They caught the better moments, and that is precisely the city image industry: various marketing industries coming together to make cities seem as though they could attract an international sporting competition.