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Gardeners walk near a replication of the Rock Point Inn and Cob Gate Fish Bar copied from Lyme Regis in Dorset, southwest England, at Shanghai's Thames Town. REUTERS/Nir Elias
© NIR ELIAS / Reuters
Gardeners walk near a replication of the Rock Point Inn and Cob Gate Fish Bar copied from Lyme Regis in Dorset, southwest England, at Shanghai's Thames Town. REUTERS/Nir Elias

Chocolate-box living, China style

China has copied everything from DVDs to dishwashers. Now the dragon economy is recreating picturesque Alpine villages and quaint English market towns.

Modern-day China is often seen as a place that thrives on replication - it has copied everything from DVDs to dishwashers, from high-speed trains to high-rise towers.

Now property developers are getting in on the act, recreating quaint English towns and, most recently, a traditional Alpine village in Austria.

The plans to build the village in southern China have taken copying to such an extreme they have caused a stir among the inhabitants of the original tourist hotspot.

Construction of the Chinese version of Hallstatt, which sits picturesquely on the shores of an Alpine lake, is reported to have started in April in Guangdong, the southern province close to Hong Kong.

Some of the 900 residents of Hallstatt have welcomed the development, hoping it will drum up further business in a beautiful part of the Austrian alps that already thrives on tourist dollars.

Monika Wenger, a hotel owner in Hallstatt, says she is concerned the developer's representatives are "present here for years measuring, and photographing and studying us".

"I would have expected them to approach us directly - the whole thing reminds me of a bit of 'Big Brother is watching,'" she says.

Others are disturbed that a team of Chinese developers have spent three years copying their village down to the finest detail.

Given Hallstatt's beautiful setting with its old-world charm and churches, it is not hard to understand why the recreated version, described as "a low-density, high-end residential development", would seem like something of a haven in China's heavily industrialised southern coastal region.

The country is urbanising at an unprecedented rate, and the vast majority of the more than 7 million new homes needed each year are in faceless tower blocks. Anyone with a few million yuan to spare, it might be reasoned, would be happy to invest in this different development.

However, the new Hallstatt, which is being developed by Minmetals Land, part of China Minmetals Corporation, is not the country's first project of its kind.

While other countries have also turned to Europe for architectural inspiration - Nashville has a late 19th century copy of Athens' Parthenon that houses an art museum, and Las Vegas has recreated a section of Venice - China has done it more often than most.

Perhaps this is appropriate, considering the country's former treaty port cities, such as Tianjin, Shanghai and Shenyang, already boast attractive European architecture, much dating back more than a century.

More recently, a developer in Chengdu in south-central China has built an English-inspired market town partly modelled on Dorchester in Dorset, south-west England.

But perhaps Shanghai, the mainland's business capital, has jumped on the copycat bandwagon with the greatest enthusiasm. The huge city has crafted a series of new towns modelled on various national architectural styles, including French, English and Spanish. Cities including Barcelona and Venice have provided inspiration.

Jia Beisi, an associate professor at the department of architecture at the University of Hong Kong, says with these new towns near Shanghai, the developer did "very well" in copying the designs and using the right materials.

But he concedes it was impossible to truly recreate the originals.

"They're still like a fake, no matter how beautifully technically they've been built," he says.

Among the gems to be found is a 108-metre tall model of Paris' Eiffel Tower, a third of the height of the original in the French capital, and a copy of the Arc de Triomphe. The famous fountains found in the gardens of the Palace of Versailles have also been recreated.

Thames Town, which sits by the Yangtze River, even has some of the red telephone boxes that used to dot England's high streets, not to mention a statue of Winston Churchill and cobblestone streets.

Not everyone is impressed. A woman from Dorset, Gail Caddy, was furious when she realised the town had an exact copy of the public house and fish and chip shop that she owned and ran where she lives. But, like others who have fallen victim to copying by Chinese companies, Ms Caddy has discovered there is nothing she can do about it.

Projects such as these are fuelled by the market, rather than the architect, says Prof Jia, adding that they reflect the fact Chinese people enjoy travelling to Europe. In 2009, 2 million Chinese tourists visited Europe, according to state media reports, and predictions have suggested the number is increasing as much as 25 per cent annually.

Other luxury schemes, particularly high-end villa developments on the outskirts of Beijing, use European architectural style without attempting to be exact copies of particular towns or cities.

Among the most exclusive is the Palais de Fortune project in north-east Beijing, where properties have sold for tens of millions of yuan. There has been no shortage of buyers who are looking for homes with a difference.

Gu Daqing, an associate professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong's school of architecture, says the recreations of European towns are about "promoting a lifestyle" that appeals to many Chinese people.

However, he suggests the "copy towns" should not be seen as representative of what the country's developers are doing. The recreation of Hallstatt, he points out, was "an extreme case". There are many other recent developments in China that instead take inspiration from traditional architecture.

"You find examples where they're … based on a Chinese idea. There are quite a lot [of such developments], but people don't pay much attention to that kind of thing," he says.

For example, there are designers who mix the tradition of the courtyard house in modern developments.

"Sometimes these individuals do it to make their projects better or more eye-catching," he says.

"It is not so different from a copy village. It's all the same - commercially driven. This is a pity. I would like to see some architects be serious to their own culture, but architecture is a business, like any other profession."



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