China is well known for its pirated DVDs and fake iPhones, but this “copycat culture” extends to architecture too – with whole towns sometimes replicated. As you enter Thames Town, the honking and chaos of Chinese city life fall away.
There are no more street vendors selling steamed pork buns, and no more men hauling recyclables on tricycles. The road starts to wind, and then, in the distance, you see what looks like a clock tower from a Cotswold village. “It has this almost dreamlike quality of something European,” says Tony Mackay, a British architect, and the master planner for the Thames Town housing scheme and the surrounding district of Songjiang.
When local officials hired Mackay in 2001, he found farms and ducks here. Today, there are cobbled streets, pubs and half-timbered Tudor houses. There’s even a statue of Winston Churchill, and a medieval meeting hall that advertises chicken wings and beer in Chinese characters. But Mackay is not happy. “It doesn’t look quite right,” he says. “It looks false.”
Mackay says the architects who took on the designs for the buildings created a pastiche, throwing together different styles, and abandoning authenticity. Some of the half-timbered houses are six storeys high, for example, and the windows on the church just don’t look right, he says. “The proportions are wrong. The use of the different stones is all wrong. It would never be used like that in the genuine English church,” he says.
The houses in Thames Town were largely bought as investment properties, so the town has always been quiet. It is only just beginning to develop a real sense of life and community. To Mackay, the place looks like a film set. In fact, one Western blogger said it reminded him of the film, The Truman Show.
But Fan Yu Zhe couldn’t care less. I found Fan and his bride Sun Qi Yao looking deeply into each other’s eyes as a photo assistant showered them with flower petals. Thames Town is crawling with young couples who want to have their wedding photos taken here. “I really hope I can visit the real Thames River one day, sit along the banks, drink a cup of coffee and enjoy the British sunshine.”
Nearby, a woman named Zhang Li snacks on tangerines and plays cards with her mother and aunt. Zhang says she has come here on her day off because Chinese towns are so crowded and commercial, but here it’s green and pleasant. And as an office administrator, she can’t afford to travel to England. “Usually if you want to see foreign buildings, you have to go abroad,” says Zhang. “But if we import them to China, people can save money while experiencing foreign-style architecture.” There’s plenty of that in China. Thames Town was built as part of Shanghai’s “One City, Nine Towns” scheme, which saw a cluster of satellite towns built around the city, each in a different international style.
Elsewhere in China, there is a replica Eiffel Tower, a mock Tower Bridge – even a recreation of Stonehenge. And last year, a replica of the entire Austrian alpine village of Hallstatt sprung up in the province of Guangdong. The original is a Unesco World Heritage site.
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