I once mistakenly tried to enter through the fake door of a fake Iberian restaurant next to the fake windmills of Fengcheng, Shanghai’s Spanish town. What’s remarkable is that this wasn’t really an atypical experience in early 21st century China.
Anyone who spends much time wandering through China’s new urban frontiers will inevitably find themselves in towns, villages, and even entire sections of cities that have been modeled off of Western architectural styles. Starting in the early 2000s, imitations of Versailles, Paris, Beverly Hills, and many other places in the West began popping up all over the country. While these replicated locales are no longer very unique or even novel, what they are really all about remains an enigma for many foreign visitors.
All throughout China’s history the country has been remarkably good at absorbing aspects of other countries and cultures and making them Chinese. It’s not just architecture that China has absorbed from other cultures, but holidays, technologies, music, art, economic systems — even invading armies. Like these other adopted elements, foreign-style architecture is rarely ever a direct appropriation, as China extracts what it likes and adds its own flavors, making them suit the Chinese palate and fit within the Chinese context.
“China actually has a tradition of architectural mimicry that goes back over two thousand years,” stated Bianca Bosker, the author of Original Copies, a book on China’s Western-themed architecture. “In the third century B.C., for example, emperor Qin Shi Huang celebrated his defeat of rival kingdoms by building replicas of their palaces in his own capital city. Other rulers showed off their authority by building elaborate gardens that were pre-modern versions of today’s theme parks. That past is key for understanding the present.”
In the case of China’s Western-themed towns we need to understand the cultural and economic context of the period of time when they first started being conceived. When China’s first architectural-appropriations began appearing, the country had just awoken from the doldrums of government-mandated architectural monotony and pragmatism. Communism tends to have the effect of wiping a country’s traditional slates clean, and this is especially true when it comes to architecture and urban design. Starting from the Communist takeover in 1949, China went to war against its traditional and diverse styles of architecture, which often included the wholesale demolition of buildings which represented the old, “bourgeois” classes that built them. In their place went hastily constructed houses for workers and, eventually, the seas of virtually identical, off-white, block-like buildings and apartment complexes which infamously gave the country a “thousand cities with the same face.” But in the late-1990s, when regulations on private home ownership and sale were loosened, there was a sudden explosion in demand for commodity houses which were more aesthetically appealing than the drab concrete cubes everybody was living in and could manifest the new power of choice and wealth that a growing segment of the population suddenly found themselves with.
The Communist-style architecture of the preceding era did not retain much appeal in the new age of rampant consumerism, and new Western-themed housing projects began springing up all over China. Most famously, in the early 2000s Shanghai began encircling its urban core with a series of towns that were modeled of the architecture and designs of towns in Britain, Italy, Spain, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia. From there, the popularity of the style exploded, and now China is home to so many Western-style buildings and towns that they have become a standard part of the new cityscape. Literally, there are hundreds, if not thousands of them spread from the coast of Guangdong province to the deserts of Gansu. In fact, Vanke, China’s largest private real estate developer, once estimated that two-thirds of their properties were in the Western style.
Although this Western style wasn’t the only new type of architecture and urban design that China embraced. When the floodgates of the commercial real estate market suddenly opened, China became the locale of an architectural free-for-all, where many different designs from many different influences, countries, and even time periods began being mixed altogether into the architectural soup of the country’s new cities. China is now home to eco-cities, smart cities, sponge cities, skyscrapers that look like boxer shorts, cultural centers that look like water slides, museums that look like a clutches of golden Easter eggs, art museums that look like butterflies, libraries that look like books on a shelf, along with dozens of White Houses, uncountable Eiffel Towers, and as many Arc de Triomphes, Château de Maisons-Laffittes, and Sydney Opera Houses that can be squeezed in. In this fray, modern renditions of traditional Chinese architecture is also being proliferated en masse, as Ming Towns, Qing Towns, and “Ancient Customs Streets” are popping up with nearly as much frequency as any other new style. China is the place where the world’s architects come to play.
Although we must not get away from ourselves and think that China’s wholesale architectural appropriation is something unique to the country. It’s not. All throughout history, countries on the rise have imitated the architectural iconography of the other countries or cultures they modeled themselves on. The United States was once had a penchant for replicating the architecture of Europe. All you have to do is walk through the downtown area of a big city on the country’s east coast or any Ivy League campus to see building styles pilfered from various European locales and eras. For the record, in addition to China, at least 23 other countries have built replicas of the Eiffel Tower (the USA alone has 10); a phenomenon which actually got its start in the UK just one year after the original was put on public exhibition.
But one marked difference is the scale of China’s architectural replication: along with copying single buildings or imitating a particular architecture style, China is also copying entire cities. This has never really been done before.
For the most part, the Western-style architecture in China is nothing more than a marketing technique. China builds Western-themed towns and housing developments not as a homage to the West, but because they sell. Even in the foreign-themed towns that have been dubbed “ghost cities,” nearly every piece of property had been sold — often for prices that range in the millions of dollars. To put it simply, Occidental-inspired homes tend to sell way faster and for way more money than standard apartments in block-like, monotonous high-rises.
“The European and American architecture evokes an entire lifestyle that real estate agents can pitch with the homes,” Bosker explained. “The homeowners aren’t just buying shelter when they buy into these theme-towns. They’re also buying the appearance of success.”
Western-themed housing projects also get a lot of media attention. Nobody outside of Zhejiang province probably ever would have heard of Tianducheng if they didn’t build a France-themed town featuring a giant replica of the Eiffel Tower. Just as nobody would probably care about a remote new development outside of Boluo, Guangdong if it wasn’t a replica of Hallstatt, Austria. Media sources from all over the world have given these places millions of dollars worth of free advertising and exposure, and tourists from around the world now flock to them just for their novelty value.
So it’s clear why developers continue building in the Western style, but why Chinese home buyers like this style so much is the question. One important thing to mention here is that the Western styles that are being replicated are usually not really authentic. They are story-book renditions of the West’s traditional architecture, like the kind which is glamorized in old movies, books, and paintings. It’s the West through Chinese eyes, an anachronism, not how it really is — or probably ever really was. But it’s the image that traditional Western architecture carries that the Chinese want, and this is the image of wealth, worldliness, and sophistication. It’s the fantasy that’s in demand, not the real thing — a fact that has been demonstrated at various times when China built authentic, modern European-style towns with disastrous results.
“The duplitecture can serve the same purpose as a Chanel logo on a designer purse: they’re status symbols that are meant to convey an air of worldliness and accomplishment for the people living within,” Bosker explained.
Besides all of the marketing and hype, China’s Western themed towns often really are nice places to be. They are the polar opposite of the conventional Chinese city. They tend to have winding, tree-lined streets, quaint downtown areas, open parks, street-side cafes, places to stroll, very little traffic, public benches, tight-knit communities, and a calm, peaceful ambiance. It’s understandable why Chinese people with the means would buy property in these places: they are escapes.
“It is better for my kids,” a resident of Anting German Town once explained to me. ‘They can play outside in the streets and there is no traffic and people everywhere. They can ride their scooter, play tennis, golf, and ride their bicycles. It’s safe here, not like in the city. We know our neighbors, we are like a big family.”
China’s Western replica towns are generally built for the new rich who don’t care to see past their exteriors. Whether intended or not intended, most of these towns are not really approached and treated like real places to live but as a holiday home or even as a valuable asset tucked away in a financial portfolio. When China’s Western towns first open up to the public they are marketed as utopias of high culture, and the target class generally buys them all up at very high prices, but the reality is that these places are often located far from the city center where this “cultured class” is almost invariably tied down to. The American-style commuter suburb was a failed experiment in China, so huge chunks of these places often sit nearly vacant for an extended amount of time, some being little more than props to take photos in front of.
It’s now been nearly 16 years since China first started building Western-themed towns and developments, and we are beginning to see what they will become. As the inhabitant-deficient years roll on, the buildings begin crumbling, the appearance of luxury begins to fade, and their status begins to falter. Many Western towns, like in Luodian, Fengcheng, and Waigaoqiao, have seen run of the mill restaurants, dusty convenience stores, and kindergartens move in, filling shops with working class businesses that were originally intended for luxurious high-fashion outlets. Eventually, many of these pockets of foreignness become “recolonized” by China and end up little more than standard Chinese towns encased within exotic facades. Whatever is on the outsides of these buildings, rest assured that the insides are all Chinese.