The Christmas train is coming to town. It will be making its first stop at the Beijing Hilton on 4 December this year and helping to raise money for local charities. Gerry McElligott, who has been bringing the Christmas train to children and adults around the world for the last 25 years, sat down with Agenda magazine to give the lowdown on this year’s event.
What’s the mission of the Christmas train?
The Christmas train is a hotel tradition that raises money for charitable organizations through sponsorships. I’ve been doing them for more than 20 years now, and they are never the same. Every hotel chooses different beneficiaries, and the great thing is that these trains, small as they are, have rebuilt schools, orphanages, and bought computers for rural villages.
How have Christmas trains changed over the years, particularly in China?
The first Christmas train we built in China was in Nanjing, which was more than 14 years ago. Things have changed so much! Back then, we used to drive from Shanghai, and there was nothing on the road: no cars, no advertising, not even bikes. In those days, it was primarily expats who came to see the train. Then as disposable income increased, more and more Chinese started trickling in. Hong Kong, I think, is really a fantastic place to be for Christmas – I think they have some of the best decorations in the world.
What is the response of people who come to see the train?
Well, the kids are always the most excited to see the train, but in many places adults come up to me and tell me about the Christmas trains they had when they were little. In Europe, trains are synonymous with Christmas because they used to bring people home. I think that is something that Chinese people can relate to as well, and so far, our responses have always been great in China.
So how long have you been building these trains?
I first started doing them in Guam, then Seoul, and rest of Asia and in the Middle East. I’d have to say the strangest experience was building a train in Dubai, where there really isn’t that much of a Christmas feel. We weren’t even allowed to call it the Christmas train – we had to call it the “Festive Train” instead! I’d have to say Christmas in the desert was a strange thing.
Did you ever think that you’d be building trains for a living?
Probably not – no… I’m not opposed to doing it. I actually have an advertising background, and had been working as an art director when I was offered this job. The Christmas train is, in a basic sense, a form of advertisement, so it was a logical step. I’d had many trains when I was little, so it wasn’t too hard to put them together.
What’s the hardest part of the job?
The hardest part is always being on the road. We start building Christmas trains in February, and I travel most of the year. I’m never home for more than two weeks. Sometime I wake up and I don’t even remember where I am going, and I have to check the uniform of the flight attendant. Nonetheless, it’s always nice to be there when they fire the train up at Christmas, and all of the kids go nuts. Not so nice when they stick their hands into it and it crashes, but still, it’s a lot of fun.
Christmas Train Charity Event. December 4. Hilton Beijing. 1 Dongfang Lu, Chaoyang District朝阳区东方路1号希尔顿酒店
For more information on how to get involved, contact Betty Zhang at 5865-5246 or email@example.com.
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