Shanghai’s Thames Town could have been a ghost city, but I really couldn’t tell with all the brides everywhere. Yes, the entire village is speckled with people dressed up as brides and grooms, they are frolicking about, posing, getting their pictures taken in the 1:1 scale stage set of England which envelopes them. They come off as a hoard — a real unruly mob that’s running the joint — but that’s just because there is pretty much nobody else here.
If this was a theme park or a Las Vegas-esque tourist gimmick it wouldn’t raise an eyebrow or garner an askance glance, but this place is for real: it’s an actual city district. Or at least it’s supposed to be.
Thames Town is a one square kilometer British themed new development in the suburbs of Shanghai that was intended to house 10,000 people in a low-density, single-family housing units. Like most of China’s other Western-themed developments it’s a real two for one: a replica town and a ghost town. Though many of the properties sold rapidly to wealthy investors and property speculators, very few people actually moved in. It’s the same old Chinese ghost city scenario English style.
I traveled subway line 9 way beyond the boundaries of Shanghai proper, through cabbage field and rice paddies, until I arrived at a place called Songjiang. I was 30 km outside the city, and it took me well over an hour to arrive here from downtown. But at least I had a seat for the most of a trip: people generally don’t ride the subway this far out of the city for the fun of it. As of now, Songjiang lies firmly outside of what is considered an acceptable commute by most Chinese. Songjiang is pretty much another city.
Watch my video of Thames Town
Songjiang is one of China’s very modern ancient cities. The place has been a city for over 2,500 years — far longer than Shanghai — but you’d never know it now: it has been rebuilt beyond recognition, modernized, and a rather large new city development has been planted in the center of it. Apparently, the icing on this new district’s cake was a highfalutin British copycat village. Enter Thames Town.
Shanghai’s Thames Village is the mother of all Western architectural knock offs in China. This is a trend that has swept the country in recent years, resulting in a near exact replica of Hallstatt, Austria in Guangdong, masses of smaller scale and less exact developments that look like European hamlets, and 7 new towns in the suburbs of Shanghai alone that are specifically modeled off of various places in Europe and North America.
Thames Village is a part of the broader Songjiang New City development, which is the “city” in Shanghai’s “One City, Nine Towns” suburban revitalization plan. This was a massive initiative devised in 2001 by Shanghai’s former and now disgraced mayor, Chen Liangyu, to transform 10 areas in Shanghai’s suburbs into pretty much the exact opposite of what the city has become. The plan was to create a network of suburban utopias that are full of green space and room to stroll, that are quiet, quaint, clean, and uncongested, with low traffic and low population density. They were intended to be good, idealized places to live and raise a family. They were basically meant to serve as refuges for the Shanghai’s bulging middle and upper class residents who wish to escape the unhealthy and stressful city climate and live the good suburban life.
Almost needless to say, a good dose of Chinese eccentricity commanded the design of most of these new developments, and Shanghai ended up with German, Scandinavian, Canadian, Italian, Dutch, American, Spanish, and two traditional Chinese themed neighborhoods in addition to the British styled Thames Town. They even imported architects directly from the architecturally copycatted countries to come up with the designs and oversee the construction.
The outer fringes of Shanghai being carved up and populated with districts bearing distinct foreign themes sounds like a page out of history being reread. In the mid-19th century the lands around Shanghai’s walled city were granted to the British, the French, and the Americans, who built up their own districts modeled off the architectural styles of their respective countries. The big stone Gothic, Baroque, Romanesque, Neo-Classical, and Art Deco buildings along the Bund were the doings of the British, while the tree lined boulevards, cafes, and Tudor mansions of Shanghai’s Luwan and Xuhui Districts were the work of the French. Shanghai has again become a global cross roads of commerce and culture, and it must be stated that the One City, Nine Towns plan seems a little like a contrived attempt to recreate this historic climate of internationalism.
But as could be imagined, the One City, Nine Towns project did not work out as planned.
I walked into Thames Town and found myself in a different land. It was not the Tudor architecture, the cobblestone streets, or any of the hokey pokey English themed nonsense that intrigued me, but the fact that the place was set up and arranged far differently than any place in China I’d yet visited. Many of the houses were red brick, mansion-like apartment complexes that had green vines crawling up their sides. Thick deciduous trees cast shade over wide sidewalks, the streets gently wound through town in circular patterns, there was an excess of space, and the layout lent a feeling of quietude which was not just because the place was virtually abandoned. It felt like I was in small town New England.
The reasons for suburbanization is the same the world over, but in China the movement of the middle class and wealthy to the fringes of the city represent a flipping of extremes. Thames Town is the polar opposite of crowded, loud, congested, polluted, stressed out, fast paced, mechanistic Shanghai. Strolling through this place is as relaxing as strolling through Cambridge, Massachusetts. Besides the army of street cleaners, nothing about this town resembles China, and this was all by design: the “One City, Nine Towns” are for Chinese looking to escape — a desire that seems to far surpass superficial architectural styling.
I walked into the center of town and found myself stomping down stone-work streets between rows of storybook plucked, old English style shops and restaurants.
From Shanghai Squared:
The town center is laid out on a medieval street plan, the blocks sheathed in fake-Tudor, complete with decorative half-timbering and stucco infill, punctuated by the occasional neo-Classical façade. The dense streets of the center are alleviated by a large “village green” terminated by a church in late Romanesque/early Gothic style, the thin concrete “stones” of the façade already disintegrating at the edges, revealing the concrete structure behind.
Surrounding and radiating out from the town center are a series of suburban blocks, with villas in a similarly eccentric range of “English” styles, before the town merges with endless rows of anonymous high-rise apartments beyond.
I walked into the tourist center and asked what I believed to be a simple question:
“How many people live here?”
“I don’t know,” said the guy behind the counter charged with answering such questions from visitors.
So I asked the two woman flanking him. They said they didn’t know either.
“1,000? 10,000?” I asked trying to get confirmation on a ballpark figure.
“I don’t know,” he said again, but this I don’t know really meant “Stop asking me questions like this.”
But I continued asking them anyway, but the only information that I could get out of the Thames Town tourist information guy was that he didn’t know anything about Thames Town. This official position of ignorance was probably a better bet. This place has been widely publicized all around the world as a flop — the kind of story that the international media chomps at the bit to publish about China — and I probably wasn’t the first curious visitor to stumble in and start flinging prying questions. I would need to work harder to find anything out about this place.
I walked back out into the streets and went in search of someone to talk with. Twenty minutes later I was still searching. I couldn’t find anybody. All there seemed to be in this place was photographers taking photos of brides, and they didn’t know much about the town other than the fact that it looked like Britain and was a jolly good site to take pictures in.
A striking aspect of Thames Town then abruptly revealed itself: shops, cafes, stores, and restaurants that only appear to be in business. This fact hit me hard when I tried to walk into a cafe that had posters and signs in the windows, chairs on the patio, pictures all over the walls, a fully set up bar, and a completely decked out interior that was completely gated off to prevent anyone from actually walking up to the door. It was a fake cafe, a prop. I peered in through the windows and the extent of the deception was commendable: it was a cafe in still life.
I stumbled away from the fence and a feeling came over me as though I was in one of those Cold War era artificial towns that were erected way out in the Nevada desert and populated with mannequins, cars, houses, appliances, lawn mowers, and just everything else as an experiment to see what would happen to a real town if an A-bomb was dropped on it.
Thames Town just wasn’t real. All through town were apparent places of business that were nothing more than facades.
But I eventually found a cafe meant for actual customers, ordered a coffee, and asked the lady behind the counter if she was local. She said she was, but she meant Songjiang, not Thames Town. I asked her how many people actually live in this British themed experiment, and she just shrugged and said, “Not too many.”
“10,000?” I jested. She laughed. Apparently, this was a bigger joke than I thought.
Thames Town was designed by Atkins, a genuine UK architecture firm, under the direction of Tony Mackay, a genuine British architect. But that’s about where the authenticity ended. Though there is a statue of Winston Churchill and the buildings look English enough, it’s incredibly difficult to regard the place as anything other than an anachronistic fantasy — though one that got dressed up, went out to play make believe, and never came back.
Though there were red, old style phone boxes, Tudor-decked buildings, classical facades, and English pubs replicated down to the finest detail, the place was too over the top to be taken seriously, more British than Britain — a place to get your picture taken in front of, not something to live in.
“It has this almost dreamlike quality of something European,” the towns’s master planner said about how his work was brought to life to the BBC. “It doesn’t look quite right,” he said. “It looks false.”
Though I had to ask myself if my impression was perverted by the fact that Thames Town reeked of under-use, that it looked like something people were not supposed to step on. The cobble stone streets appeared untrod, the window sills conspicuously uncluttered, the windows opened up to scantly clad interiors, the walls were virtually unknicked, the roofs untattered. There was little here besides gravity, wind, and brides to create wear and tear, and likewise there was no history, no story, no soul.
Genuine towns — especially old British ones — don’t look like this, they don’t feel like this, and they are definitely not built like this. Places where people live are askance, wobbly, patchworked, leaning, there is laundry hanging on lines, and there is a thick layer of life smeared over everything. Real British buildings were build of solid stone and earned their character. Of course, you can’t expect a newly built replica town to feel authentic, but this place just felt unalive. It was like a wax figure of a place, a model, a masquerade, a stage set — something to look at but not touch.
It makes you want to walk on tip toes, and just about the only thing to do is try to photobomb wedding pictures.
Not only is Thames Town a facade of England, it’s a facade of a habitation.
But what was truly onerous about this place wasn’t that it was a copy of old British architectural styles — cultures copying the architectural styles of other cultures is a normal phenomenon throughout history — or even that it was virtually uninhabited, but that it seems to have been thrown together in an incredibly cheap and shoddy manner. To be blunt, Thames Town is to a real British village what a pair of no-name boots being sold at Walmart is to a pair of Redwings. Behind the ornate stucco exterior designs and stylish timber are regular Chinese buildings molded out of concrete and the regular mix of mass-production materials. If people actually lived here I don’t imagine there would be much worth taking photos of for very long.
Thames Town was intended to provide accommodation for the professors and staff that would relocate to the newly developed Songjiang University Town. As the name belies, this district was intended to be a city just for universities. At 533 hectares it is the largest university zone in China. The project was conceived in 2000 and construction began five years later. As of now, eight universities now have campuses there.
Though ultimately, a British replica town full of Shanghai’s scholarly gentry has not yet come to fruition. Many of the properties were quickly gobbled up by real estate speculators and investors who have no actual intention of living in them, and in the process drove the prices up far beyond what many prospective residents can afford to pay. Currently, the prices for housing in Thames Town are reported to be as high as in central Shanghai or Beijing — which means in the millions of dollars. So almost all of the apartments remain empty, and Thames Town remains a stagnant backdrop for wedding photos.
While people venture out to Thames Town to check out the funny English buildings and get their photos taken in front of a church that may or not be for real and eat at overly idealized British style pubs, by nightfall they all go home, leaving China’s Britain-ville to quietly sleep alone.
As I was walking out of Thames Town I saw a large promotional poster which poignantly yet ominously summed up the state of this place:
“The highlights deserve waiting.”