Vanke, a major Chinese development firm, estimates that 2/3 of its new housing projects are in the Western architectural style, but this is nothing new in China.
China’s taste for traditional Western architecture has lead to a profusion of English, French, German, Spanish, American, Dutch, etc towns being built across the country. Shanghai’s One City, Nine Towns project is perhaps the most well known, but these Occidentalist neighborhoods and complete villages are popping up nearly everywhere, culminating to a head with an exact, 1:1 scale replica of Hallstatt, Austria in Guangdong province. The other day my British editor sent me a link to an article about a newly built “Old West” American town outside of Beijing that was modeled off of Jackson, Wyoming, thinking that I may feel at home there.
These new Western style towns have caught the attention of the international media, who seem to find in them yet another manifestation of China’s proclivity to copy other countries mixed in with more than a touch of cultural self-flattery.
What these replica towns are really all about has been the question. Do they show a lack of originality? Are they an ode to the West? Are they a symbolic form of conquering? Or are they built simply because they sell? Whatever the case is about this appropriation of Western architecture, one thing that is for certain is that it’s nothing new in China.
Kinmen Island is a case in point.
Although now a part of Taiwan, prior to the Chinese Civil War and the rise to power of the Communist Party in 1949, Kinmen was a full-fledged part of China. The island group sits just a few miles of the coast of the mainland and has historically been taken in tandem with its close neighbor, Xiamen, which remains a part of the PRC.
In 1860, the Convention of Beijing allowed Chinese people to again leave the country and go abroad for work, and streams of Fujianese from Kinmen immediately began leaving their little fishing villages in droves. Their target destination was Southeast Asia — the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia — where they could work for higher wages and send money home. Though they often started out as sampan drivers, longshoremen, or farm laborers, many of these migrant workers moved up the economic ladder, started companies, and made fortunes. All too often, their success was monumentalized at home through the building of incredibly large, extravagant houses.
“Up until 1910 they would send money back and build traditional style houses,” Ting Qi, a Kinmenese museum curator told me. “But after that something changed and they began building the big Western houses.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“More and more people started to go abroad and build houses back here, so it made people want to build something to stand out.”
The Western influence on Kinmen architecture started out as a hybrid style — a colonial style second story or a veranda with pillars slapped onto an otherwise traditional Minnan house. But this soon evolved into gigantic, opulent, full-on Western style mansions.
The emigrants would get inspiration from the colonial architecture they saw in Indonesia, Malaysia, or the Philippines as well as from the Victorian era English, French, and German buildings in the foreign concession on nearby Gulangyu Island. They would then take striking elements from these buildings back to be constructed ad-hoc in their home villages.
“They would come in with a plan that they got from some other building and bring it into the builders [on Kinmen] and they would try to build it the best they could,” Ting Qi explained.
In a relatively short period of time, the popularity of Western style houses exploded on Kinmen, as more and more families began building and living in places that appeared very much like colonial estates. They were the new rich of their time, and they sought a way to invest their savings as well as show off their newfound social status and wealth. For them, Western style houses were the answer, much the same as it is in China today.
“How did they find local people who could build in that style?” I asked a long term resident on the island who has studied its architecture.
“They didn’t,” he replied simply. “They didn’t know how to do it so they made them how they thought they should be. The outsides look Western or colonial style but beneath that it is the regular Chinese style. If you look at the plans it is just a Chinese house with Western designs. In one you can see that the roof and things were exactly like a Chinese house that they just built over.”
“In Gulangyu,” he continued, “Germans would come and say ‘I want a real German house’ and English people would come and say ‘I want a real English house.’ But their houses were real. The people from here would go to Gulangyu and this is their take on that through Chinese eyes.”
Again, very much as it is with Western style towns in China today.
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