I’ve visited Hallstatt, China, which is a 1:1 scale exact replica of the Austrian UNESCO site and listened to the local photographers rant about how unoriginal it was. I’ve had a strange young women profess her love to me in Shanghai’s British village. I’ve gotten drunk with the overtly merry residents of Anting, a German themed ghost town. I’ve strolled through the barren main drag of a neighborhood that was a virtual copy and paste of Amersfoort while listening to a local complain about how he would rather have had a fake traditional Chinese town instead of a fake traditional Dutch town. I looked with bewilderment on what developers had done to Pujiang, building something that was supposed to look like Italy but ended up looking like a bunch of upended Legos. I once tried to enter through the faux door of a faux McDonalds beneath the faux windmills of Fengcheng, Shanghai’s Spanish town . . .
China’s penchant for imitating the traditional architecture of the West has often found itself the focus of reports in the international media, which seems to never tire of running the same clips about them over and over again. Their takes generally bounce from one side of the spectrum to the other, either severely exaggerating them — “The Chinese built an exact replica of Paris down to the Eiffel Tower” — or marginalizing them as just another type of cheap and inferior Chinese copy that’s little more significant than a knock-off handbag. Some have posited these places as homages to the West, some have deemed them to be an act of conquering, while others have used them as a testament to the enduring lack of originality of China. Generally speaking, the West has looked down its long, pointy nose at these appropriations of architectural styles they claim to be their own, and seems to take a smug sort of pride in having the genuine articles when all the Chinese can muster are fakes.
But is this really the case?
Over the past three of four years of wandering through China’s new urban frontiers I’ve inevitably found myself in many towns and villages that have been modeled off of Western architectural styles, some being virtual replicas, and their widespread proliferation, mystique, and all-out oddness led me on a mission to find out what they are about.
All throughout China’s history the country has been especially good at absorbing aspects of other countries and cultures that were appealing or useful and making them Chinese. It’s not just architecture that China takes from other countries, but traditions, holidays, ideas, religions, technologies, music, art, political and economic systems . . . And like these other adopted elements, foreign-style architecture is rarely ever a direct appropriation, as China adds its own flavors and adaptions, making it suit the Chinese palate and applicable within the Chinese context.
In the case of China’s Western themed towns we need to remember that China has just recently awoken from a period of extreme architectural monotony. Communism has the tendency of wiping a country’s cultural slates clean, and this is especially true when it comes to architecture and urban design. In the mid-90s, when Chinese were allowed to own, buy, and sell property again, there was this sudden demand for houses that looked different, which were more aesthetically appealing, and represented the image of wealth and success that the new home buyers attributed to themselves.
The pragmatic, boring, virtually identical housing of the communist era did not retain much love in the new age of rampant capitalism, and Western themed architecture wasn’t the only new style that was being embraced. The floodgates suddenly opened and China became the site of an architectural free-for-all, where many different styles from many different influences, countries, and even time periods were being tried and tested — including traditional Chinese styles. Almost from the start of this era, Western-themed architecture was popular, which is a taste that has continued to this day.
Although we must not get away from ourselves and think that China’s wholesale architectural appropriation is something unique to China. It’s not. All through history countries on the rise have imitated the architectural styles of established or historic states or cultures they modeled themselves on. The United States throughout the late 19th and early 20th century was one of the biggest architectural copycat countries in history. All you have to do is walk through the downtown area of any big city of the country’s east coast to see architectural styles pilfered from various European eras back all the way to Greco-Roman times. We take this for granted now because these buildings have been there for so long, but it actually wasn’t so long ago that the USA’s architectural copycatting was the chagrin of Europe. 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 got its start in the UK just one year after the original tower was put on public exhibition.
For the most part, Western style architecture in China is often 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 called “ghost cities” nearly every single piece of property had been sold. These Occidental inspired properties also often sell for way more money than developers could get for standard apartments in block-like, monotonous high-rises — which is a prime justification of the style in and of itself.
Western themed housing projects also get a lot of media attention. Nobody outside of Zhejiang province ever would have heard of Tianducheng if they didn’t build a giant replica of the Eiffel Tower. Just as nobody would probably care about China’s Hallstatt if it was just another run of the mill, standard housing development rather than being a replica of Hallstatt. Media sources from all over the world have given these places millions of dollars worth of free advertising, and tourists from around the world now flock to them just because of this.
So it’s clear why developers continue building in the Western style, but why Chinese home buyers like this style 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 Chinese versions of Europe’s traditional architecture, like the kind that which is shown in old movies, books, and paintings. It’s how China idealizes the West, it’s an anachronism, not how it really is — or probably ever was. It’s the image behind traditional Western architecture that the Chinese want, and this is the image of wealth, worldliness, and sophistication. For the most part, China tends to romanticize old Europe in very much the same way that early 20th century Americans did. It’s the fantasy that’s in demand, not the real thing — a fact that has been demonstrated at various times when China builds authentic, modern European-style towns with disastrous results.
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 go for strolls, very little traffic, and a really calm, peaceful ambiance. It’s understandable why Chinese people with the means would buy property in these places: they are escapes.
China’s Western replica towns are generally built for the new rich who don’t care to see past their exteriors. They are taken at surface value, and are something novel that people seem to think impresses other people. Whether intended or not intended, most of these towns are not approached and treated like real places to live — a lack of population aside — but as holiday homes where the country’s rich can take vacations to and post photos of themselves in on social media. They are status symbols, and, above all else, are not taken too seriously. Westerners tend to make a bigger deal about them than the Chinese.
The question of whether China’s Western style towns are successful or not depends on how you define success. Especially in the economic climate before 2014, almost all of the properties in China’s larger scale new cities would sell fast for very high prices. So from the perspective of the developers they are very successful places. When China’s Western “replica” towns first open up to the public they are marketed to be utopias of high culture, and the target class (generally) buys them all up. But the reality is that these places are often located far out of 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 are owned by people who bought them as investments or otherwise have no intention of living in them any time soon or, as we’ve covered earlier, intend to use them as vacation homes. But this shouldn’t necessarily be taken as an ominous sign of economic demise — ironically, China’s new cities are often victims of their own success. But if given enough time, China’s larger-scale new cities tend to fill up with enough people and business to function as viable urban entities.
It’s now been nearly 15 years since some of China’s Western themed developments have been built, and we are beginning to see what they will become. As the inhabitant-less years roll on, the buildings begin crumbling, the appearance of luxury begins to fade, and their status begins to falter. Many, like Luodian, Fengcheng, and Waigaoqiao, will see run of the mill restaurants, dusty convenience stores, and kindergartens eventually move in, occupying shops that were supposed to be for luxury retail outlets. Eventually, they become “recolonized” by China and end up little more than standard Chinese towns encased within European facades where people come to get their pictures taken.
However, China’s days of constructing this European style architecture are now over. At the end of February, it came down from the country’s State council that such “West worshiping” architecture will no longer be permitted. An era has come to an end.