Out of China: Variety ousts ideology from the bill at the People's Palace

KUNMING - 'The second floor is the best,' advised the two young country girls enjoying a Monday night at the People's Cultural Palace. Thousands of people were jostling around the entrance as music blared from all directions. High above them loomed 18 storeys of late Stalinist architecture, the city's one-stop shop for entertainment, education and ideology.

On the ground floor, ideology was fighting a losing battle. In the central hall, Kunming's citizens could inspect stern portraits of hundreds of local party cadres and near by were photographs of local worthies distributing anti-malarial information.

On the whole, paying 50p for the chance to act out a fantasy of imperial China was much more popular; in front of the palace, a troupe of sturdy lads, working in shifts, were doing the Chinese sedan run, ferrying punters up and down the forecourt, accompanied by a mock court retinue.

Every town and city in China has a People's Cultural Palace but Kunming's, in south-west China, is bigger and better than most. Soldiers, workers and peasants were once force-fed information on the latest tractor production quotas and rice harvests, but this emporium now offers everything from weightlifting and haunted grottoes to explicit sex- education films. That was not what Chairman Mao envisaged, and perhaps the stony- faced cadres downstairs do not entirely approve.

In Kunming, once the masses had tired of the giant television screen and the scores of karaoke booths ringing the base of the tower, the second floor of the cultural palace was certainly busy. Young couples, some with their one per family child were zapping away at Japanese video games. Bored toddlers were dumped in a huge playpen where they could wallow in a three-foot-deep sea of rubber balls. In a side-room, men competed for trinkets in a shooting gallery.

On the same floor, the brave were venturing into a grotto populated by figures from Chinese mythology. A moving tableau of giant rats and pig-faced beasts of yore gave way to a chamber of horrors featuring ritual dismemberment.

Opposite, the merely curious were buying tickets to watch a continuous screening of 'Mysteries of the Human Body'. The film's billboard in the forecourt showed a couple of Chinese newly-weds. By the ticket-desk on the second floor were photographs of seductive Western women but inside, the audience of predominantly single men could be forgiven for feeling a little short-changed. On the walls, graphic photographs depicted the ravages of venereal disease; on the television screen, an early 1970s American sex-education film, dubbed into Chinese, revealed in clinical detail those mysteries of the human body.

Onwards and upwards, by way of a staircase winding its way up the outside of the tower, to the third floor, where martial-arts classes and weightlifting were in progress. On the fourth floor, three small cinemas were showing Chinese and Western action films. Up to the fifth, where a dozen billiard and pool tables were all occupied, and the chess players were just ending their games.

Arriving at the sixth, the door was locked, but through the windows could be seen two dormitories, with young men chatting on bunk-beds; their laundry was hung out to dry on the balconies. It seemed to be a hostel for boys from the rural areas looking for work in Kunming.

At this point, it was clear that those genuinely interested in self- improvement must have stronger legs. On the seventh to the 14th floors were rooms set aside for adult evening education and extra- curricular cramming classes for children trying to survive Kunming's competitive school system. In these days of the one child policy, the one child is forced to spend a lot of time studying to fulfil his or herparents' ambitions.

The 15th, 16th, and 17th floors were empty, but on the 18th was the palace's 'Window on the World': a grubby canteen serving beer and snacks, which none the less offered a stunning panorama of Kunming. Far below, the roller-skaters were practising their turns on the palace rink, more customers were queuing up for the sedan-chair experience, while others were being weighed and measured by a machine playing an electronic version of 'Jingle Bells'.

Across the road is the state guest house where The Queen stayed a decade ago. According to city officials, she only smiled three times in China.

One of those royal moments was in Kunming. On this spring evening at the People's Palace, the locals seemed to be having rather more fun.