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Travel & Leisure

Chinese flock to escape rooms for a different lockdown experience

Immersive mysteries fuel a rebound in consumption after stay-at-home orders lifted

In an escape room decorated in traditional Chinese fashion, participants must solve a murder mystery. (Photo by Shin Watanabe)

BEIJING -- The clock is ticking. The room is dark. There might even be a murder victim on the floor. And the clues must be pieced together before you can leave. It may not be a matter of life or death like the pandemic lockdowns, but adventurous young Chinese are trading one confined space for another to test their puzzle-solving prowess in escape rooms.

China had about 1,100 escape rooms in 2019 -- two and a half times the year-earlier tally. Many are in major cities, including Beijing and Shanghai.

A two-story Emo Space location offered three themed sections on a recent visit: an ancient Chinese structure, a Japanese-style building, and a dark hospital evocative of a horror movie.

Teams of five to 15 participants dressed up in traditional Chinese clothing and as patients, for example, to get in the mood for their themed adventures.

"You work together with everyone on a team to solve a mystery, and it gives you a sense of accomplishment," said Shi Xiaoqian, a 34-year-old public employee who goes to escape rooms at least once a month.

"Tickets are rather pricey, but I have a really fun time," she said.

While admission is about 350 yuan ($53) at this Emo Space location, it often ranges from 100 to 300 yuan elsewhere.

Teammates sometimes become friends. Escape rooms are drawing 20- and 30-somethings bored with such conventional activities as karaoke, sports and eating out.

Many escape rooms are run by startups. Emo Space, launched by Fang Chao, a 33-year-old former bank employee, is no exception.

Emo has opened three locations in Beijing since August 2018 and is set to branch out into Dalian and Shijiazhuang soon. Plans are for about 20 directly run locations and 50 franchises in three years. Revenue is projected to surge from the 24 million yuan expected for 2020 to more than 100 million yuan three years down the road.

A directly run location requires an investment of 6 million to 20 million yuan, which can be recovered in just a year or two. "Our strength is having in-house content writers and designers," Fang said.

The escape room boom is a recent craze in China, where there were just 37 locations as recently as 2016, according to a trade group. Games were simple at first, with teammates simply reading a story to solve puzzles. Many locations now feature elaborate designs and costumed role-playing.

Business slowed during the COVID-19 outbreak earlier this year. But with the new coronavirus under control in China, new facilities have been popping up since June -- a sign that entertainment consumption is bouncing back just like the manufacturing sector.

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