Quaint Tudor houses, cobbled streets and red telephone boxes. You would be forgiven for believing this was a description of a historic British town. However, just 25 miles south-west of Shanghai lies China’s “Thames Town”, an eerie replica of an English market town. Originally completed in 2006 to provide living space for a projected 10,000 residents, the town now lies virtually empty. This phantom town phenomenon was born out of the ever-increasing need to build accommodation for China’s growing population, particularly around huge economic centres such as Shanghai. Despite heavy investment these satellite towns cease to be fully inhabited and remain silent ghost towns.

Entering Thames Town almost feels as if you are entering an elaborate film set. This is not just a few copycat streets, rather an entire town. All-in-red guards, rarely experiencing human interaction, stand alone in the eerily quiet streets. Everything from rubbish bins to lampposts are designed to look as British as possible, however, the unnaturally immaculate façades deter from any real authenticity, not quite capturing the timeworn charm found in British towns and villages.

Unsurprisingly China’s rapid economic growth has meant new residential projects have become commonplace. However, the obsession with imitating Western ideas, in this case architecture, is not so easily explained. In addition to Thames Town the Chinese have recreated cities such as Paris, Venice and controversially Austria’s UNESCO World Heritage site, Hallstatt. This particular development split opinions amongst the original Hallstatt residents with some describing the copycat project as “unacceptable” explaining how their village was unique and should be kept that way. On the other hand, China’s recreation of the Austrian village caused a substantial increase in the amount of Chinese tourists visiting the real Hallstatt which leapt from just 47 in 2005 to 8,700 in 2011.

Many have speculated over the reasons for this copycat syndrome. Could it be just another aspect of the Chinese obsession with Western culture and lifestyle? It’s a well known fact that China is rife with imitations of designer goods, mobile phones and even cars but the extension to fake architecture is not as easily explained. Knock-off products are sold and usually result in substantial profit, however, multi million dollar investments in creating European-style towns do not seem to have been successful in bringing in much return. For example, Thames Town’s permanent population is virtually non existent. Chinese developers spent 300 million dollars creating the British replica and yet the town’s retail premises are boarded up and businesses have been unable to survive. Some houses have been bought up by wealthy Chinese as holiday homes and many newly weds use the town as a backdrop for their quirky British-themed photographs. However, other than this the town lies empty and unpopulated. A far cry from China’s bustling mega cities.

Some question whether Chinese developers were just too optimistic. These Western-themed ghost towns have been described as collisions of aspiration and tradition and most have turned out to be nowhere near as successful as was initially intended. Why are these towns built? Perhaps just as evidence of China’s economic growth? If these developments are nothing more than a form of assertion then should China be prioritising the projects it invests in? A minority of China’s population, namely the wealthy few, are benefiting from these European-style towns and the lifestyle they promote, yet some Chinese are still living in poverty. Despite the fact that poverty levels in China have decreased substantially over the past 30 years regional income disparities have actually increased. The GINI index, a measure determining economic inequality was at 0.38 in 1988 and in 2012 this figure had increased to 0.47 making the country less equal in economic terms than places like Sri Lanka and Malawi. It must be mentioned however that it’s hard to be sure about the accuracy of these figures as China did not provide official GINI Index figures until 2005 claiming they were too difficult to calculate.

Would something similar ever be successful in the UK? Crowds of British people flocking to live in a Chinese-themed town seems more than unlikely. Chinese culture and traditions are still very much alive amongst the country’s population and in most cases the Chinese would rather reside in familiar surroundings. Projections seem so poorly researched that one wonders how developers could have got it so wrong.

Copycat behaviour is certainly not a new phenomenon in China. Research acknowledges imitation in Chinese culture dating back to the Qing Dynasty during which emperors would replicate countries and lands that they had conquered demonstrating their power. Therefore is this behaviour already engrained in Chinese culture? With over 400 years of copycat history it would seem that way.

These towns have failed to attract residents and visitors alike. Yet this hasn’t stopped the Chinese from developing more and more of these bizarre copycat visions. They have left Westerners flattered, but slightly confused and even puzzled. The reasons for the existence of these projects remain unclear. Could China just be asserting its economic power and demonstrating its desire to become a first world country? Or perhaps in years to come these bizarre copycat towns will be fully functioning and thriving settlements. Only time will tell. In the meantime perhaps China should look at other more worthwhile projects to invest in, such as attempting to tackle the country’s high levels of inequality and creating a much needed fairer society.

 

Sources:

http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2012/11/29/chinas_imperial_plagiarism
http://io9.com/the-bizarre-copycat-architecture-of-china-455672655
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thames_Town
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poverty_in_China
http://edition.cnn.com/2014/06/09/business/gallery/china-architectural-mimicry-town/?hpt=hp_c2
http://www.china.org.cn/china/2012-06/11/content_25615847.htm
http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SI.POV.GINI