“Here used to be original Asian city with lots of original style buildings. Now it has been developed and all of that is now gone. It is a pity,” a homegrown resident of Gaoqiao spoke as we sat together in the shade of a large steeple extending skyward from the top of a full blown European style church.
He told me his name was Zhou, he was around 40 years old, and spoke English with the overly academic awkwardness of a well learned but under-practiced speaker. He was clearly not very enthused that a foreign inspired neighborhood was built in the middle of his old city.
I was in Shanghai’s New Netherlands Town, a place that was designed to look just like Holland that, for some reason, was built in Gaoqiao — an industrialized district in the north of Pudong on the east bank of the Huangpu River next to the Waigaoqiao Free Trade Zone.
The place was part of the One City, Nine Towns initiative that developed ten of Shanghai’s suburban districts through the 2000s. Under this plan, each suburb was given a themed neighborhood, most of which were designed to look like foreign cities, and Shanghai ended up with German, British, Swedish, Canadian, Spanish, Italian, American, as well as Dutch satellite towns. The vision was to have these new towns house one million people by 2020 and take some of the population density pressure off of central Shanghai, the world’s most populated city.
Like the rest of the foreign themed towns included in this project, Shanghai called in native architects to build the Dutch themed village. Kuiper Compagnons and Atelier Dutch did the honors here, and came up with a romanticized concept of their country’s architecture which was implemented over one square kilometer in Gaoqiao, a city whose history dates back to the Southern Song Dynasty.
Watch the video from my visit to New Netherlands Town
If the plan was to make something conspicuous out in the northern Pudong industrial wasteland, this was surely accomplished by New Netherlands Town. Standing in stark contrast to the chemical plants on one side and the industrial free trade zone on the other there is a giant windmill. There is also a canal side promenade that had a 1:1 scale section of Amersfoort copied and pasted upon it. The Netherlands Maritime Museum, Amsterdam’s Bijenkorf department store, and Voorburg’s Hofwijck mansion are also duly replicated. The buildings are incredibly beautiful and presented well, and truly would not have looked out of place in the country they were replicated from.
The main drag through the Dutch neighborhood is called, of course, Holland Culture Street. It was obviously meant to be the epicenter of this new town, being a shaded pedestrian walkway that cuts between four story buildings with old style Dutch inspired facades. Apparently, a buzz of commerce was meant to be happening here, instead there was only the sound of a creaking chain coming from a solo bicyclist and the footsteps of a security guard. There was no shopping, hardly any pedestrians, and hardly any businesses to go to even if someone was presumptuous enough to come here for any reason other than having their picture taken in front of the pretty buildings. The only things on Holland Culture Street were a lone restaurant, a quicky-mart, and two or three daycares. All other doors were firmly closed.
I had been to many other European architectural knock-off towns throughout China, but there was one thing that struck me as obtuse about this Dutch district: it seemed wedged in, kind of stuffed off to the side of the broader Chinese area that flanks it. It was like the place was thrown into the design of Gaoqiao New Town as an afterthought — like someone rearranging a stuffed suitcase to fit in one more item. Where Shanghai’s other foreign themed towns stand as proud pedestals of anachronism, the centerpieces of their respective new towns, Gaoqiao’s Dutch section seemed to cower. To add to this impression, the locals seemed to treat the place as if it didn’t exist, though it sat right in the middle of a fully populated area. Normal Chinese life goes on all around New Netherlands Town, this foreign knock-off quarter is like the empty hole of a donut.
“What do you think of this place looking like Holland?” I asked Zhou as we sat in the shade.
“It is a pity,” he repeated. “Chinese people don’t like it, and I think foreign people don’t like it either.” He paused for a moment before turning the tables on me, “What do you think?”
I hesitated, not wanting to offend. “It is a little fake,” I responded.
“Fake! Yes, it is fake!” he roared.
“Do you see anything there?” he continued. “There are no bars, no cafes, no places to go.”
I admitted that I couldn’t find any place to go on Holland Culture Street, and the only things that were Dutch about this place were the facades on the buildings, the windmill, and the statue of a giant clog.
“I think when foreigners come to China they want to see Chinese style cities and Chinese culture,” Zhou continued.
I nodded. I suppose we do want to see “Asian-y” things when we go to Asia, or at the very least places that don’t look like empty mock-ups of other places in the world.
“It’s not about the buildings,” Zhou astutely mused, “it’s about the culture, the people, the traditions. There is none of that here. It is a pity.”
I then asked him why he thought the government wanted it to look Dutch.
“It is said that Shanghai government wanted to make Gaoqiao a modern city but the local officials here just kept the money.”
There may have been some truth to this statement, as the Birmingham University educated Chen Liangyu, the former mayor of Shanghai who was a major push behind the One City, Nine Towns initiative, is currently languishing in prison on corruption charges.
“If I was the mayor I would tear this all down and make it an original Asian water town,” Zhou ranted. “If they made it original Asian style and made bars and cafes people would come. The water towns are nice, people like them. Not like this.”
But how could this guy really complain? The rest of Gaoqiao was either chemical plants, rust encrusted industrial ports, run of the mill Chinese urban sprawl, or slums of virtually boarded up, slapped together shanties.
“Who would want to live here?” I asked, wondering how developers could ever think they could entice wealthy middle and upper class people to move out to this doomsday of a place. “It’s all chemical plants, industry, and ports, and it smells like burning tires.”
“Yes,” Zhou replied, “there are lots of factories and it smells like chemicals, like petroleum.” He then thought for a minute and continued while shaking his head, “Yes, this place is very unhealthy, this place is very bad.”
They pretty much built an upper/ middle class foreign themed suburb in the middle of a wasteland. Though Gaoqiao is now served by the Shanghai metro and it really isn’t that long of a commute to central Pudong, it isn’t difficult to list the reasons why the Dutch part of the new town lacks inhabitants — and at $100,000+ to land one of those Dutchy apartments, it’s not exactly cheap either.
Though Shanghai continues its rapid outward growth, and it is looking as if even its industrial, chemical plant laden, toxic fume smelling suburbs will soon become prime real estate. Perhaps the One City, Nine Towns project may prove to not be such a momentous bust after all.
There is nothing like communism to wipe a country’s cultural slate clean. China seems to have spent the last couple of decades struggling to find its identity again after an insanely tumultuous century, and this search has been expressed architecturally all over the country. As big, faceless, and ultra-pragmatic communist era buildings no longer cut it, China’s architects, engineers, and city planners seem open to making a go at just about any type of architecture or urban design. From mega-cities to eco-cities to sky cities to European knock-off cities, they’re pretty much building it all.
While these foreign themed cities continue to pop up around China, it is my impression that the trend is nearing its end. China will soon find its architectural footing, its beat, its own style, and begin standardizing. So enjoy this architectural free for all while its still happening.
“Before it was popular for China to copy more developed counties,” Zhou said. “We used to think that everything that was foreign was good. But now we don’t want to copy, it’s not good to copy.”
Read more on the China Chronicle: Shanghai’s One City, Nine Towns Plan.