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July 12, 2011

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Shanghai's copycat European towns

HUIZHOU City in Guangdong Province has made headlines for its blatant knock-off of a quaint Austrian village on UNESCO's list of World Heritage Cultural Sites. The hamlet of Hallstatt dates back to the Middle Ages and is built on a pristine lake surrounded by forest. It's a favorite of tourists.

Some residents are fuming and feel they were "invaded" for years by a team of "spies" who took pictures, made measurements and collected data, but never told authorities about the grand copycat project. Some Chinese find it ridiculous that Chinese real estate developers would copy a Western town. Others find it offensive and a sign of China's insecurity and absurd reverence for things Western.

But this kind of real estate copycat project is not news, certainly not in Shanghai, which has chunks of 10 European towns in its suburbs - Italian, German, Spanish, English, Dutch; there's a bit of America and Australia as well. Some towns are a hodgepodge of European styles. They're complete with replica houses, villas, inns, restaurants, cafes, pubs, stores, churches, squares, fountains, statuary, post office, city hall, parks and other fixtures.

Bronze statues of nudes and cupids line some roadsides.

Strolling around is pleasant experience, especially since a number of towns are located in scenic farm areas.

Many farmers admire them, some city dwellers consider them tacky, some find them perfect backdrops for wedding pictures. A few architects regard them with distaste.

Most of the apartments have been sold to developers for speculation, companies for use as dormitories, and to farmers who consider them a big step up from rural dwellings.

But there's not a lot of bustle, at night they aren't many lights; locals call them "ghost towns."

In the late 1990s, the Shanghai Municipal Government launched a project called One City and Nine Towns, aimed at creating attractive satellite towns in the suburbs to relieve the population pressure in downtown areas.

These days, officials aren't saying much about the Nine Towns project, that once was touted as urban planning magnets.

Some are an indiscriminate stew of styles, seeming caricatures of the real thing. Two ancient water towns, which are preserved, are joined by an ecclectic mix of European architecture.

The foreign towns have been built in Luodian Town in Baoshan District (Scandinavian town); Anting in Jiading District (part of the German city of Weimar); Zhujiajiao in Qingpu District (mixed European style in ancient water town); Fengjing in Jinshan District (mixed European style in the ancient water town); Pujiang in Minhang District (Italian hamlet and American architecture); Gaoqiao in Pudong New Area (Dutch town, plus French and Australian architecture); Zhoupu in Nanhui area (mixed European); Fengcheng in Fengxian District (Spanish town); Baozhen in Chongming County (mixed European); and Songjiang New City in Songjiang District (English Thames town).

"The One City and Nine Towns project is an important strategic step to improve Shanghai's urbanization among its suburbs," said the former director of the Shanghai Urban Planning Bureau, Xia Liqin, during an interview in 2007.

She said it encourages people to relocate to the suburbs, improves infrastructure and public facilities in suburbs and accelerates balanced suburban development.

Xia said at the time that if it is successful, the city government would promote the project to other towns in the suburbs.

She pointed out that these towns draw on Western architecture and planning but are not replicas. "It's incorrect to say they are merely copies or clones," she said.

Many of the scenes are quaint and pleasant, but many cafes and shops are closed, or they have few patrons. The towns are quiet, almost dead. Attractive buildings surrounded by farmlands are virtually deserted.

Transport is primarily by private car; there are few shuttle buses.

"This is tortured scenery," says Guo Qiming, the representative of China Design Center, Bauhaus University, and a teacher at the College of Urban Planning of Tongji University in Shanghai.

"They are beautiful, but they hurt my eyes terribly," Guo says, a little angry. He has staunchly opposed the project though he acknowledges it has been carried out "in good will."

"This ridiculous design is a perfect demonstration of Chinese people's lack of confidence in our own culture and tradition," the architect tells Shanghai Daily. "They think only the West is the best."

In an architecture seminar held during the World Expo last year in Shanghai, the Italian consul general asked "Do you know how many properties in China are named after Rome or Toscana?"

The answer is more than 800. "Italians might regard this imitation with pride, but for me it's a cultural invasion. Sadly, most Chinese don't realize it," Guo says.

Architect Guo says that architecture reflects culture and carries civilization. "It also shows people's love, attachment to and identification with their homeland. If we don't identify with our own culture, that also means we don't identify with ourselves," he says.

The Weimar project in Anting Town is a failure in his eyes. "We just copied the appearance and totally lost the essence," he says.

The project is a 1:1 replica of the German town with a post office, a church, pubs, coffee shops, buildings with red roofs and yellow walls. "They even shipped the soil and plants from Weimar, without knowing that European plants cannot live in China at all," he says. The trees all died after they were transplanted.

The church is made of cement, while the original was faced with marble. "It's all fake. How could you expect farmers, factory workers and propery investors to worship in that church every Sunday?"

He cites his visit to Baozhen Town in Chongming County, the site of a conglomeration of European styles.

"Can you imagine even the public toilets and village director's office are decorated with naked European women?"

Even worse, he says some village homes are an incongruous mix of French columns, English balconies, Italian roofs and Chinese front doors.

"I was speechless with dismay," says Guo.

Local governments had hoped the project would boost the local economies and improve infrastructure. But things haven't worked out as well as expected. In general real estate sales are good - most units have been sold since the price of housing in the city has soured in recent years. Not many families lives there. There's no buzz.

The Thames Town now has become a shooting location for newly-wed couples to take wedding photos. The entrance fee is 50 yuan (US$8) for each person.

"When I bought the flat in 2006 it was like nobody was there. This was the situation for years until Metro Line 9 reached the New City," says 27-year-old accountant Fang Zhuoyun, who purchased a 110-meter-square apartment in the Thames Town in Songjiang New City several years ago.

"It was a smart purchase. The price was around 4,000 yuan per meter square when I bought it, but now it's over 10,000," she says.

But Fang doesn't live there. She works in Songjiang's old area, the busiest district center, and rents a small flat in the downtown area close to her office. "I go back to the Thames Town once a week. That place is peaceful, good for a weekend getaway," she says.

Tang Yinhua, a 56-year-old gradmother, says night time is a little scary. "It's too quiet. About 10 out of 100 windows are lighted," she says. She and her husband moved to Thames Town three years ago. Her daughter and son-in-law, living in the city center, visit once a week and on holidays.

Another interesting aspect of these European towns is that hardly anyone speaks in Shanghai dialect. If the weather is good, Lin Shi'en always takes her grandson out for a walk in Jiading District's Anting Town, where part of the German town of Weimar has been built. The 60-year-old from Hebei Province came to Shanghai to care for her 6-year-old grandson; her son works in downtown Shanghai.

"Many residents here are not Shanghai locals; they come from different parts of China such as Hubei, Henan and Hebei provinces. They or their children settle down in Shanghai," she says. "I'm not worried about communication because we share something in common - and the first language here is Mandarin."


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