Chinese tourists snub 'Big Stupid Clock'
- 4 February 2013
- From the section London
In a quiet corner of Highgate Cemetery, Chinese tourist Violet Chun Yang pays her respects to the founder of Communism Karl Marx.
"He is definitely the greatest revolutionary," says Violet, voice brimming with emotion. "I think he inspired Mao a lot."
And then she gets ready to shop until she drops.
Every year 150,000 Chinese tourists come to the UK - and at Harrods they now spend five times more than Americans.
But it is not Big Ben they have come to see - Ben means 'stupid' in Mandarin, and some among the Chinatown community call the tower the 'Big Stupid Clock'.
Is Violet enamoured with the historic sights of London?
"No - probably take a picture, but that's all," she laughs.
Her companion, Chenhao Ge, concedes their next stop may be shopping for Prada.
For it is luxury brands - available far more cheaply than in mainland China - that prove the major lure for Chinese tourists in London.
"The price is going to be double if you buy in China," Chenhao Ge explains.
Violet adds: "England people are humble, they want to hide their wealth. In China we like to show. We like to expose our wealth to all other people."
"We want others to know we are rich," she says.
Both Chenhao and Violet say they are communists.
They are not alone - the biggest spenders at last month's West End sales were Chinese tourists.
Department stores like Selfridges now employ dozens of Mandarin-speaking staff.
Enling Chiang, from Selfridges' sales team, observes: "Chinese customers don't like sales to be pushy - very important to hand with both hands.
"One hand is very disrespectful in Chinese culture.
Meanwhile Hippodrome Casino, in London's West End, has an entire floor dedicated to Chinese gamblers. Staff speak Chinese and the Feng Shui is spot on.
Chief executive Simon Thomas said: "They like earthy colours in the loos, because you are getting rid of waste.
"Chinese people do not feel comfortable in a polished loo with metallic surfaces."
He went on: "We don't have number fours in building - its unlucky. Plus, don't tap on the back as it takes away luck."
But the Chinese taste for London luxury does not end there.
Andrew Cussens, of Bloomsbury Films, records fairy tale English style weddings for the richest of Chinese visitors.
He said: "We often gasp at what clients spend on a wedding - most clients spend £100,000 and often £250,000.
"Many will hire an Aston Martin - we had one wedding where the client hired 10 Rolls Royce's for just the arrival."
It all feels a far cry from the "diligence and frugality" demanded by Chairman Mao.
France claims four times more Chinese visitors than Britain.
Raising that number could create thousands of jobs - but critics say the UK's trying visa demands could be to blame.
A single visa gives Chinese people access to every EU country except Britain, which demands a separate one.
The forms have to be completed in English and can be numerous pages long. Some applicants have to provide historic bank statements.
And there are only 12 places in China where would-be tourists can apply.
Mark Henderson of London Luxury Quarter - which represents exclusive stores in the Bond Street area - said: "The only negative feedback I've ever seen from Chinese coming here is the humiliation of filling in visa forms.
"It sounds like an absolute nightmare. I find it extraordinary anyone gets to this country."
The UK Border Agency insisted the "door is open" to legitimate Chinese tourists, and moves are under way to simplify the process.
Meanwhile the Chinese tourist whirlwind descends upon Hackney, E9.
"They come to Hackney, jump back on the coach and off they go again," observes local mechanic Peter Petrou with a touch of bewilderment.
But it is not the Shoreditch art scene that is the focus of Chinese attention, nor the banging new nightclubs of Dalston.
Opposite the Hackney fried chicken shop, high end fashion labels Burberry and Pringle have opened discount outlets.
Find out more on BBC Inside Out, on BBC One in the London region on Monday, 4 February at 19:30 GMT and nationwide on the iPlayer for seven days following transmission.