Thames Town, Shanghai
"...there’s some corner of a foreign field that is for ever England"
This is Thames Town in Songjiang, an extended suburb of Shanghai. It was built to house 10,000 well-heeled people from the growing city and is a mash up of facsimiles of places from Scandinavia, Italy, Spain, Canada, Netherlands and Germany.
What a great idea! Maybe we could solve the housing problems in our decaying towns and cities by building replicas of, say, Lagos or Kinshasa, Potosi, Chisinau or Caracas?
Anyway, back to Thames Town. Pictures speak louder that words, so that is what I am going to give you. Let's start the tour.
All of those pat phrases about chocolate box architecture apply. The mix is there. Tudorbethan a la Chester, Georgian terraces, Victorian Gothic; all the styles you can't see if you look out of your window.
This is The Truman Show meets Portmeirion or Poundbury. There are even statues of icons of British history like Churchill, Princess Di, James Bond and Harry Potter. All of the boxes have been ticked, although the phone box probably doesn't stink of urine and does seem to contain a laptop.
China Travel Guide says 'you can't help but be attracted by the beautiful and dreamy town where streets, squares, houses, sculptures, streetlights and signboards just remind you of Britain'. And it certainly does remind me of some bits of Britain; Bicester Village comes to mind and it is a safe bet that the chips in the chip shop are spindly French fries and the beer in the pub is American style soda water with a dash of urine.
The Guide goes on to tell you that "The Catholic Church is the landmark building of the Thames Town....its appearance is like an English castle and characterized by the Baroque style". Wrong religion for a parish church and you don't see much Baroque in market towns, but we can let that pass. The guff is here:
Link : Travel China Guide
The only thing that is missing from this Disneyesque confection is the character actors. I imagine someone like Dick Van Dyke's improbably coiffured faux cockney chimney sweep in the Mary Poppins films, credited with the worst impersonation of a London accent in cinematic history. 'cor blimey guv'nor'. Apologies to younger readers, you won't have heard this; but I guess you might think you need something to be thankful for. In fairness he did spend fifty years apologising for it.
So far, sadly, as a magnet for homebuyers it hasn't worked. Prices were high and people didn't move in. Apparently the shops are mostly shut and the cobbled streets are deserted. Frankly, I have no idea how far China has got with the other fake towns, it is hard to distinguish their reportage from propaganda and aspirations from achievements, but you have to admire the scale and ambition and suppress a quiet giggle if the wheels have come off during their current property crisis.
Why? Is it just an expensive way of adding to the housing stock? Might they have done better to ape Milton Keynes? In my travels through the bowels of search engines I found this wonderful passage from a piece of French research which I am sure explains a lot.
"......this urban creation with its borrowed architectural forms raises questions with regard to both its morphology and its social reception/construction. The “Town on the Thames” presents a meticulous English-style layout that crystallises the tensions encountered in Chinese urban peripheries: gated communities, the staging of Western architectural styles and their appropriation by the inhabitants, the identity enhancement they represent, and over and above this, relationship of the self to others and of others to the self".
There. Now, do you get it? If you actually and unbelievably do, here it is: Link Thames Town, an English Cliché
The question I ask myself is, for beauty, authenticity and wildlife, can it ever beat the Kilburn High Road?
PS. There is actually a Japanese take on an English village in the mountains near Kyoto. Smaller but more authentic even, apparently, down to the fish & chips. See Eleanor Yamaguchi's blog post here: Dreamton