It’s a scene that’s instantly recognizable the world over. At the end of a wide, open boulevard, the unmistakable silhouette of the Eiffel Tower disappears into the fog. But something about this Parisian vista just seems a little… off. Weeds can be seen winding an ever-tightening grip upon the iron structure, while the elegant cafes are all but abandoned. Surely this isn’t France? Far from it! This place is actually thousands of miles from the real Paris, in one of China’s eerie fake cities. Yes, that’s “cities” – because it didn’t just stop at the French capital.
At first glance, with its iconic tower and ornate fountains, China’s Tianducheng is a dead ringer for the City of Lights. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. All across the country, it seems, architects have been hard at work creating painstaking replicas of some of the most famous places on Earth.
On the outskirts of Shanghai, for example, sits a neighborhood strangely reminiscent of a small Spanish town. And just a few miles away, the city’s roads give way to a network of faux-Venetian canals and bridges, forming an uncanny copycat of Italy’s floating city. Near the capital of Beijing, meanwhile, a row of Wild West structures make up an eerie imitation of Jackson Hole in Wyoming. But why?
Certainly, these cities might seem like familiar places – but only on the surface. Delve deeper, and you’ll see that the streets of Paris are missing their crowds, while the Venetian waterways are unnaturally quiet. Why, then, would China build these mimic metropolises? And more importantly, why is there nobody home?
Located in the outskirts of Hangzhou on China’s eastern seaboard, Tianducheng is probably one of the country’s most famous replica cities. There are few landmarks more iconic than the Eiffel Tower, after all. And even though this version is just a third of the size of the original, it still makes an impressive centerpiece to this faux-Paris.
But the replica Eiffel Tower isn’t the only thing that Tianducheng, otherwise known as Sky City, has in common with the French capital. Incredibly, it also features its own interpretation of the historic avenue known as the Champs-Élyseés, as well as a number of apartments that echo the style of Haussmann’s world-famous Parisian vision.
Just two hours’ drive away, the futuristic skyscrapers and crowded streets of Shanghai hum with people and noise. But a decade ago the wide boulevards and genteel architecture of Tianducheng were so empty that they felt like another world. You’d think people would have flocked in their droves to experience this slice of the Parisian dream, but they didn’t.
Some 100 miles to the northeast, in the suburbs of Shanghai, the mysterious trend continued. In 2001 an initiative known as One City, Nine Towns was established, aimed at developing the outskirts of the overpopulated metropolis. But where you might expect to find normal Chinese neighborhoods, several surreal pseudo-cities stand instead.
One of the most famous of these is known as Thames Town, a sprawling settlement designed to look like a quintessential English urban center. With its Tudor-style buildings, traditional telephone boxes and statues of British heroes, it would not seem out of place on the outskirts of London. There’s even a pub!
But this slice of England was devoid of the day-trippers and commuters that you might have expected to see in such a place. Instead, its shops and buildings stood empty, and its atmosphere was that of a ghost town. And it wasn’t the only replica settlement to have succumbed to such a strange and haunting fate, either.
In the suburbs of Shanghai, there are five more replica neighborhoods – each intended to evoke a different European destination. In Anting, otherwise known as German Town, buildings designed in the Bauhaus style tower over wide streets and boulevards. For added authenticity, it was dreamed up by the son of Albert Speer, an architect who worked in wartime Germany.
Elsewhere, the town of Fengjing is Canadian-inspired, while Fengcheng has a distinctly Spanish flavor. In Luodian, or Sweden Town, a man-made lake is surrounded by unmistakably Nordic architecture. But unlike the real places on which they are based, these bizarre settlements were almost empty of human life.
And that’s not all. Also close to Shanghai, Gaoqiao, or Holland Town, boasts a collection of windmills that wouldn’t look out of place on the outskirts of Amsterdam. But it seems the Netherlands has inspired not one but two cities to spring up in China. Hundreds of miles to the north, in the province of Liaoning, Holland Village has its fair share of Dutch architecture as well.
Here, more windmills vie for space alongside canals and, unbelievably, a life-size copy of The Hague’s Peace Palace. In fact, it seems as if there is no end to China’s inexplicable desire to recreate cities from around the world. Take the canals and bridges of Venice, for example, which can be seen in at least three different places across the country.
In Florentia Village just outside Tianjin in north China, Venetian-style bridges cross a long, meandering waterway. But unlike its Italian counterpart, this canal is devoid of gondolas and tourists. And back in Hangzhou, a district dubbed Venice Water Town features palatial buildings with vistas onto artificial canals.
Some 700 miles north in the city of Dalian, a third faux-Venice stands, this time complete with gondolas offering rides along the canals. But again, there are no tourists taking in the sights or residents going about their daily business. This strange city remains hauntingly empty of life. Similarly, over in Tianjin, another attempt to recreate a world-famous attraction also sits eerily abandoned.
This time, it is the skyline of Manhattan, and its familiar buildings stretching up towards the sky. But where are all the people? Here, the bridges are empty of traffic, and few lights illuminate the many windows. On the other end of the urban scale, an Alpine village has been recreated in Guangdong Province, with replica farmhouses scattered across the countryside.
Like China’s fake Manhattan, though, this Austrian fantasy is also deserted, its fountains and flower-strewn balconies are without an audience to admire them. The same story is repeated in each of China’s replica cities. Only in Beijing’s version of Jackson Hole, it seems, is there any evidence of significant human habitation.
Here, clapboard storefronts and frontier-style buildings convincingly recreate the atmosphere of the American Wild West. And unlike China’s other urban doppelgängers, this replica city is proving a popular place to live. So why did Jackson Hole thrive while the others originally remained little more than ghost towns? And what were the builders trying to achieve?
Were these replica cities once film sets, perhaps, abandoned once their purpose had been fulfilled? Or are they leftover from some kind of social experiment gone horribly wrong? The truth gives us a fascinating glimpse into life in modern China and the role that western culture plays in its aspirations and ideals.
Of course, you don’t need to look at these replica cities for long before realizing that something is amiss. In Suzhou, for example, there are a number of structures that recreate landmarks from around the world. And the overall effect is one of geographical dizziness, as visitors bounce between Parisian architecture and a structure weirdly reminiscent of London’s iconic Tower Bridge.
But Suzhou’s Tower Bridge, unlike the one in England, boasts four towers instead of two. Similarly, the balconies and terraces of Hangzhou’s Water Town are strewn with laundry and vegetable gardens – a distinctly un-Venetian sight. Clearly, these towns are by necessity only distorted copies of the famous places that they seek to emulate. So why were they built?
The truth, it seems, varies from town to town. For instance, Tianducheng is one of the most ambitious of China’s replica cities and was opened to the public in 2007. Its mock-Parisian architecture stretches for 12 square miles, with the 350-foot copy of the Eiffel Tower at its heart. But despite its elaborate appearance, it was designed with a relatively simple purpose in mind.
With space at a premium in cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, developers had begun looking for an alternative to Chinese urban communities. And so, they turned to the great metropolises of Europe for inspiration; Tianducheng was one of their solutions. Designed as part-replica and part-homage, this other Paris on the outskirts of Hangzhou was supposed to offer some 10,000 residents a different way of life.
But according to reports, these people never arrived. In 2013 a video was posted to Vimeo, Tianducheng was almost completely deserted. With its wide avenues virtually devoid of people and plant life beginning to overrun its replica Eiffel Tower, the nascent urban center appeared little more than a ghost town. This ambitious project, it seemed, had failed.
So what happened? In a 2016 interview with ABC News, Tianducheng resident Rachel Ni admitted that she was embarrassed by the town’s attempts to recreate the splendor of Paris. She said, “I think [it’s] a little strange. I don’t like it here… And some people, I think, want [the tower] removed. It’s fake. It’s not the true one.”
But while Tianducheng was failing to live up to expectations, a whole host of replica cities were opening up across China. The trend even gained its own name: duplitecture. And when the planners of Shanghai began developing the One City, Nine Towns project, they embraced the idea with enthusiasm.
Thames Town opened in 2006 and is another typical example of the duplitecture trend. But just like Tianducheng, it seems it failed to attract new residents after its launch. And today, the town is said to be more popular with newlywed couples posing for photos to commemorate their special day than permanent residents keen to make it their home.
According to reports, a similar story is playing out across each of Shanghai’s European-themed suburbs. In Anting, for example, only a small fraction of the apartments are occupied. So what happened? According to the German newspaper Der Spiegel, problems with a lack of basic urban amenities and unfinished building works have hindered the town’s success.
Isolated from the surrounding area, Anting’s German Town never became the metropolitan hub that its designers intended. Today, the few residents live alongside abandoned construction projects and vacant buildings, a stark reminder of a vision that was not to be. Speaking to Der Spiegel in 2011, architect Johannes Dell summed up the issues with the forgotten town.
“The Chinese didn’t want a German town,” Dell explained. “They just wanted a town that looks like a German town.” But the problem was not just with the Bauhaus architecture and beer gardens of Anting. Over in Shanghai’s Holland Village, the windmills and canals of another mock city have also failed to tempt in an indigenous community who would call the area home.
In 2018 Slate magazine reported that Holland Village was deserted, its empty buildings awash with litter and dust. And even though a few scattered residents had moved in, it seemed clear that the duplitecture approach to Shanghai’s housing crisis had not been successful. But what of China’s other replica towns?
Outside Tianjin, Florentia has a slightly different backstory. This sprawling development modeled on the canals and architecture of Venice was, it seems, not created as a solution to China’s problem with urban overcrowding, Instead, it was designed as a shopping center, housing brands such as Prada, Fendi and Gucci within its grand, Italianate walls.
Opened in 2011 Florentia Village covers some 50 acres of ground and is connected to both Beijing and Tianjin by a high-speed rail connection. And unlike places such as Anting and Holland Town, it is far from deserted. According to the website Business Insider, the center attracts as many as 25,000 visitors per day at peak times.
Here, the duplitecture has definitely been an attraction, rather than an embarrassment. In a 2011 interview with British newspaper The Daily Telegraph, one visitor said, “It’s better than the Italian Embassy building in Beijing. The architecture here is truly splendid, so I came to enjoy the aspect of the place and take pictures.”
And it’s not just Florentia that has become the poster child of duplitecture. Despite early videos showing Tianducheng as a ghost town, China’s Paris has apparently been enjoying something of a renaissance in recent years. In 2018 Bianca Bosker, who has written a book about the trend, penned an article in Slate about a recent visit to Sky City.
Instead of the abandoned buildings that Bosker was expecting to find, she discovered a vibrant community in the midst of a construction boom. With new apartment blocks springing up across the town, people of all ages could be found strolling through the mock-Parisian boulevards. But where had they all come from?
As recently as 2008, it seems, Tianducheng really was a ghost town. But then, a new management team took over. According to Bosker, they began to focus on developing services and utilities, rather than just building endless apartment blocks. And before long, the promise of French cultural institutions and high-end spas had worked its magic.
Now, one local realtor told Bosker, there were as many as 18,000 people living in Tianducheng. And when a collection of new units came onto the market in August 2018 they were snapped up within minutes. Highly affordable compared to the expensive properties in central Hangzhou, these Parisian apartments were ideal for young families just starting out.
By the time of Bosker’s visit, this influx of new residents had created a far more lively Tianducheng, complete with luxury boutiques, plastic surgery clinics and local stores. And according to recent reports, Thames Town has experienced a similar change of fate. As Shanghai’s population has continued to grow, it seems, this satellite city has finally begun to fill out. So will the rest of China’s duplicate cities follow suit? Or will they remain as they are – an empty, haunting echo of another time and place?