China’s “knock-off” cities, built to resemble famous European and American cities like Venice and New York, have become tourist attractions in their own right
The surreal world of replication has become something of a 21st century obsession in China. Built partly as a reaction against the bland Communist-era architecture that proliferated in China from the 1950s to the 1990s, and partly as a marketing ploy, Western-themed cities offer more than just a house but a certain lifestyle, even if it’s mostly a fantasy version of the real thing. While many cities have become ghost towns, some are thriving, and all are well worth a visit.
1. Thames Town
Modelled on a quintessential English town, Thames Town has Georgian and Tudor houses, a Gothic church, cobbled streets, quaint pubs and a village green – plus a multitude of iconic red telephone boxes. If you didn’t know better, you really would think you were somewhere in the Home Counties of England – except for weather. Summer temperatures in Thames Town regularly hit 40°C (104°F). Positively balmy!
When the town was completed in 2006, many properties were bought as investments or second homes and the city was a ghost town, but gradually the town has picked up momentum, particularly in the summer. It’s become a popular photo shoot location for weddings – visit on a weekend and you’ll find posing couples on almost every street corner. Grab some fish and chips from the takeaway and people-watch.
2. Abandoned City of Lights
When Greek-French film director Romain Gavras saw a picture of Tianducheng in China, he knew he had to do something with the city. Describing the place as a “cultural appropriation vortex”, he went on to use the faux-Parisian suburb as a backdrop for one of 2016’s most impressive music videos, Jamie xx’s ‘Gosh’. This gated community is built around a 354-foot replica of the Eiffel Tower (one-third the height of the real thing) although Tianducheng’s residential houses, created in Parisian chic style and fit for more than 10,000 people, sit largely empty.
Check out this YouTube video for some behind the scene footage of Jamie XX’s ‘Gosh’
3. Fake Venice
Arguably the most audacious example of ‘duplitecture’, as the phenomenon was soon nicknamed, the “Venice of the East” set in the port city of Dalian, has more than 2.5 miles of Venetian-style canals and plenty of gondolas to help ferry visitors down them.
Built by a French architectural firm, the stretch of canal is lined with replicas of Renaissance-era Italian architecture; one source put the cost of the whole project in the region of 5 billion yuan (£592 million) when it was completed in 2015.
Knowing Dalian’s canals are far quieter than the Venetian ones, why not enjoy a peaceful gondola ride down the rivers of faux-Venice, just to see if it’s as thrilling as the real thing?
4. The Manhattan Project
One of the most compelling examples of ‘copycat towns’ in China, the vacant, unfinished high-rises of China’s replica Manhattan also make for the saddest. The influx of skyscrapers and development in the Conch Bay district of Tianjin was meant to transform the region, helped by a high-speed rail link that cut the travel time to Beijing down to an hour.
The $50-billion development, with its own Rockefeller Center and Twin Towers, was another victim of China’s economic slowdown and property slump. Today the office blocks and skyscrapers stand like shining, hollow shells; some partly occupied, others unfinished and some just left abandoned and gathering dust.
5. Why Wyoming?
What happens when the Wild West and the Far East meet? Welcome to Jackson Hole, the Chinese mountain town where log cabins are decorated with mooseheads, stuffed and mounted on the walls.
If you want to know why the small US town of Jackson Hole, home to just 10,000 residents, was chosen for replication in China’s Hebei Province, you’ll have to ask the brainchild behind the scheme, Allison Smith. The Portland-based architect was apparently inspired by the rural, rustic charms of the Northwestern states and set about developing lodge-style cabins and houses with Chinese city-dwellers in mind.
The replica town has proved quite a hit in China and the majority of the upscale properties have permanent Chinese residents. If you’re driving to Jackson Hole for a visit, check out Route 66. It runs right through Jackson Hole, regardless of the fact the US highway doesn’t go anywhere near Wyoming.