West Rises In China's Back Yard

China drew inspiration from towns along the Thames River in Britain for a community built outside of Shanghai called Thames Town, a popular destination for weddings.
China drew inspiration from towns along the Thames River in Britain for a community built outside of Shanghai called Thames Town, a popular destination for weddings. (Ariana Eunjung Cha - Twp)
By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 11, 2007

SONGJIANG, China The ding-dong from the neo-Gothic church next door signals to Wu Yuqing that it's time to wake up. On her way to the grocery store each day, she walks past the Cob Gate Fish & Chip shop and bronze statues of Winston Churchill, Florence Nightingale and William Shakespeare. Tall men decked out in the red uniforms of the Queens Guard nod hello.

The place looks a lot like a small town on the Thames River, but Wu's new home is actually in a suburb of Shanghai.

As China's modernization continues to pull hundreds of millions of people from farms to cities and suburbs, a construction boom has given rise to a vast landscape of foreign-looking settlements. These real estate developments are the latest manifestation of the technique that has fueled China's economic boom: making copies.

In Nanjing, there are Balinese retreats and Italian villas. In the southeastern city of Hangzhou, there are Venice and Zurich. In downtown Beijing, everything is about Manhattan, with Soho, Central Park and Park Avenue.

"Many people in China today associate the exotic with wealth. They buy into these developments to differentiate themselves from ordinary people," said Tino Wan, a manager of ERA Real Estate in Shanghai.

Shanghai's plan is among the most ambitious, calling for a ring of satellite developments modeled after different parts of Europe, including German, Czech, Spanish and Scandanavian districts, in addition to the one that looks like London, known as Thames Town.

Between now and 2015, about half the world's new construction will take place in China, with as much as 6 billion square feet of space expected to be added each year. All over the country, block-like concrete edifices and empty fields are giving way to flashy architectural developments that promise to give the new middle class a taste of places most of them have never seen.

Some traditionalists, however, have lamented the trend, blaming it for the destruction of older, Chinese-style homes and attacking it as a form of "self-colonization."

Yu Renze, 74, a retired government administrator from Shanghai, said she didn't not understand the appeal of the Western-style developments and that she would not allow her family to live in them even if someone gave her a house. "We're not foreigners," she said.

But Ren Bing, general manager of Venice Aquatic City in Hangzhou, said these theme complexes should not be disparaged. "Even many Americans in America also prefer to buy non-American things," Bing said. "It doesn't mean people are denying traditions their ancestors have passed down."

Indeed, Wu said she has no desire to leave her country even though she likes the comfort and ambience of her new four-bedroom townhouse. "It's like I'm living abroad, but it's still China and everyone still speaks Chinese," said Wu, 45, an investor.

If not for the street signs with Chinese characters in Venice Aquatic City, it would be difficult to place where in the world you were exactly. Gondolas ply canals just below Hu Jun's new apartment. Her view includes porticos with flowers and half-moon bridges. "St. Mark's Plaza" is a five-minute stroll away.


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