“You are building Manhattan,” I joked with a group of construction workers in what is becoming Tianjin’s new financial district. He nodded his head and smiled as we stood together, peering out at a tight phalanx of half built skyscrapers that now command a tight bend on the Hai River, one tick from the East China Sea. There was no jest here though, this wasn’t a joke, this was for real: he really was building Manhattan. Well, a Chinese version of it anyway.
Apparently not content with allowing New Yorkers to remain the sole beneficiaries of their city, a group of enterprising developers and government officials have engaged upon the most extensive and ambitious knock-off in human history: the creation of a Manhattan themed financial district — in China. The bounds of geography, culture, and history are no match for this rising superpower which takes architectural designs and urban layouts from around the world like plucking fruit from a tree.
Why go to the Big Apple when we can bring the Big Apple to us?
The Chinese version of Manhattan’s business district (FiDi) is called Yujiapu (于家堡), and it is slowly arising out of the heart of Bīnhǎi New District (滨海新区), which itself is a new area of Tianjin, a provincial level municipality 85 miles from Beijing. In 2008, an ancient fishing village was swept off the face of the earth and a forest of skyscrapers were planted in its place. Scheduled for completion in 2019, Yujiapu isn’t just a copy of Manhattan’s FiDi, but is set to be even larger than the original. At 3.86 sq km in area, it is to become the “largest single financial center on the world.” So not only is this a colossal knock off, it’s a colossal development in its own right.
When finished, Yujiapu and the area across the Hai River immediately adjacent to it is slated to provide 15.2 million square meters (164 million square feet) of office space. Though larger in surface area, Yujiapu only intends to offer a little over a third of Manhattan’s business capacity.
Perhaps not content with copying handbags and mobile phones, the Chinese are replicating entire buildings, villages, and now, entire city districts. Hallstatt, a near exact copy of the Austrian hamlet of the same name, has now opened to visitors in Guangdong province. Shanghai is reenacting its colonial past and has built entire new districts designed to look like England, Paris, Germany, Holland, and Sweden, respectively. Even the relatively insignificant city of Taizhou has their own British knock-off town. Huaxi, dubbed the world’s richest village, has not allowed itself to be undone by other copycats, and has made an entire theme park of knock-off landmarks from around the world.
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Though Yujiapu is something that has never been done to this extent before: the DNA of an entire district of a city has been replicated and given life on the opposite side of the globe. The Atlantic reported that, “The miniature city is a near facsimile of New York–down to the river wrapping around the peninsula’s southern tip.” The Rockefeller Center is in the process of being cloned, and there is an identical pair of skyscrapers going up that very much resemble the twin towers of the original World Trade Center.
But these plans were not half-baked in some shady corner of a half-rate, cut and paste architectural sweatshop; no, China has called in teams of bona-fide first stringers for this game. The Rockefeller Center replica and Yujiapu Twin Towers are being handled by Yinfeini Property, the China side subsidiary of Tishman Speyer — the architectural firm that built the original World Trade Center and are currently in the process of completing 1 WTC. The Rockefellers are likewise not standing idly by as a copycat of the building that bears their legacy is being erected in China; nope, their Rose Rock Group is helping mint Yujiapu’s centerpiece: a 588 meter high tower that will be even taller than 1 WTC, which itself is set to become the tallest building in the western hemisphere. The Lincoln center is also in the fray, helping design Yujiapu’s performing arts center. So not only is Yujiapu being built to resemble Manhattan, it is being built by some of the same firms who made the original.
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This all sounded to me like something out of a Vonnegut novel, and I have to admit that I could not shake the feeling of suspended reality as I crossed a bridge and passed through the skyscraper gates of Yujiapu. I found myself in an entire city that was in the process of coming to life. Work crews were racing here and there, up scaffolding, down freight elevators. It was like being among a colony of ants building up a concrete nest all around me. The grey, fixture-less, concrete skeletons of skyscrapers rose over dirt roadways, and at each turn these towers of bones continued on and on. Their sides were speckled with dark, windowless cavities, and the effect was like looking upon a stack of skulls lining the path to some heart of darkness.
Everything in sight was in the process of being built, there were no temporal bearings anywhere, this entire city was morphing and changing as I watched. This rising colony of finance was remarkable. I’ve been in new cities in China that were in the process of being built before, but I’ve never experienced anything on this scale. These were massive skyscrapers, not mere high-rises. In fact, one of these fledgling towers will someday be one of the largest structures on the planet. What I was looking at was a live-action snapshot of something historic in the making — something which seems to represent the rise of China as a whole. Yujiapu is slated to be one of this country’s prime financial centers, and its incredible scale and scope provokes the same worn questions to be ask:
Is this a historic success story in the making?
Is this a historic flop waiting to happen?
Whatever the case ends up being, a monument is in the works at Yujiapu: a spindly, concrete one that should give us a dose of deja vu.
“This is the key project of all our projects in China,” a partner at Luo Si Luo Ke (The Rockefeller Group’s Chinese subsidiary) told CNN, “at the moment, no other project is more important than this.”
In early March of this year, the news program “60 Minutes” released a report declaring that construction at Yujiapu had ground to a halt. My visit was mere weeks after this report aired, and their take couldn’t have been further from the truth. Yujiapu is not stagnant, it is rising steadily, piece by piece, floor by floor, tower by tower. Though I have to admit that the construction did not seem to be going full tilt, and the amount of workers that I observed did not appear adequate for completing a city of this magnitude anytime soon. But the fact remains that Yujiapu has not been abandoned, it has not been deserted, it is still being actively constructed.
Though I call Yujiapu a Manhattan FiDi knock-off, it is not an exact replica. Though some buildings are being cloned and the theme is overtly “Manhattan,” the layout and finer aspects of the design is different. One major deviation from the original is that Yujiapu’s developers have added a Central Park-like green space through the middle of their creation, whereas the actually Manhattan financial district is pretty much a contiguous koosh ball of skyscrapers. The Atlantic notes other marked differences:
A few of Yujiapu’s features are originals: an urban park on a whale-shaped island; an underground strip of high-end stores; and China’s first three-tier, underground train station, where bullet trains will shoot commuters off to Beijing as well as Tianjin, a nearby boom town of almost eleven million people.
I soon enough found myself standing before the fetus of this transportation hub. It didn’t look like much, just the skeletal outline of an egg shaped structure, but this was part of what was enthralling about this place: it is in the process of becoming, and predicting what it will eventually mean is like trying to see through the opaque smog that blankets this country.
Where is all this money coming from?
Building the largest financial district on the planet is obviously expensive. Estimates in 2011 pegged the cost of building Yujiapu at 200 billion RMB, but this seems to have increased since them. Much of this money is coming in the way of loans, and, as some reports have outlined, the various developers at Yujiapu are struggling for new lines of credit:
To build Yujiapu, Tianjin officials are piling onto borrowing that is already at least almost half a trillion yuan – -equivalent to half the annual per capita income of the city’s 13 million people.
One of the companies building Yujiapu — Tianjin Binhai New Area Construction & Investment Group Co. — sold 10 billion yuan in bonds in November. It earmarked 1 billion yuan from the sale to fund the construction of the district’s transport hub . . . In the first half of the year its debt, mostly from banks, rose 11.9 percent from the end of 2010 to 71 billion yuan, according to the prospectus.
Partly due to the blast of construction at Yujiapu, Tianjin has topped the national GDP charts of China over the past couple of years, showing an incredible 17+ percent growth rate. But they also have been incurring a stockpile of loans (47.2 percent in 2009). When such substantial growth is piggybacked on credit, the possibility of it falling flat is always present.
But why does it look like Manhattan?
There is perhaps no greater singular symbol of wealth and economic dominion in the world than the financial district of Manhattan. The place is the Great Pyramid of global economics, it’s everything that Yujiapu — and China for that matter — aspires to be. Perhaps symbolically, Yujiapu is a conquering, or at least putting itself on the same level with this great center of global commerce by replicating it. Or perhaps it’s just a magnanimous expression of China’s new consumer culture: “I’ll take one Manhattan please, put it on credit. Thank you very much.”
Whatever the case, the cold, no-frills monoliths of Communist-era architecture no longer warm many hearts here in China. A country that only constructed block-shaped, grey buildings for a generation perhaps deserves some critical leeway when the creativity valve is released and they start busting out with some of the most outlandish buildings and development projects the world has ever known. Freed from the strictures tradition, hurtling into the future, architectural anarchy is the rule in modern China.
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Though it is my impression that the Manhattan theme is more or less a promotional gimmick to put and keep this project in the spotlight. For this place to prosper it needs to attract both national and international companies. They need to make a buzz, push some buttons, sound off a few sirens, trip a couple alarms. Journalists are ogling over Yujiapu not because it is intended to be northern China’s financial hub and represents the over-development, over-spending, and over-optimism that characterizes this phase of the country’s development, but because it is being built to look like Manhattan. To be honest, I probably would not have visited Yujiapu if it was merely another big Chinese financial development on the brink of bankruptcy, and very few of us probably would ever hear about this place if it wasn’t a replica. In an odd twist of logic, by copying a famous city Yujiapu made itself unique.
Though whatever the reasons are for its style, when completed, Yujiapu is intended to be a world class financial center spoken about in the same sentence as Pudong, Zurich, Chicago, Tokyo, Singapore, Hong Kong, Seoul, London, and, yes, Manhattan. But will Yujiapu earn this place in the global lexicon of financial districts, or will it collapse under its own weight and become the world’s most spectacular ghost city — a relic of the China that could have been?
Nobody knows. But for now at least, the workers at Yujiapu still smiled as we gazed upon the emerging skyline of their Manhattan.
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