Inside China's Copycat Communities


In her new book, Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China, millennial journalist Bianca Bosker explores China’s oft-overlooked, and under-valued, cultural phenomenon of copycatting. Steering away from the heavily-discussed knock-off bags or knock-off boots, Bosker anchors her research in architectural mimicry. This form of copycatting is an ongoing phenomenon in China wherein entire towns appear to be lifted right from the streets of America or Europe; where the Eiffel Tower looms large in the city of Hangzhou, and out-of-place Gothic cathedrals evoke the British countryside. 

Here in the United States, we too practice the art of recreation, and you don't have to look further than Vegas' Venetian canals for proof. But, as Bosker points out in an interview with the Wall Street Journalthese two forms of mimicry are not one in the same: “It’s not like Las Vegas. These are not theme parks. These are homes. These are communities. These aren’t just tourist attractions though they can be that too.”

The new book explores these topics and themes, shedding light on one of the most fascinating aspects of China's fraught and complicated relationship with the West. 

An excerpt of this book is below: 

Within an afternoon in Shanghai, visitors can tour the Weimar Villas of German-style Anting Town, stroll the granite piazza of Italian-themed Pujiang Town (or rather the “Citta di Pujiang”), and go boating on Malaren Lake in the Scandinavia of Shanghai, Luodian Town. This feeling of traveling Europe in the suburbs of Shanghai is captured well by Pujiang Town’s slogan: the entire experience is “Out of expectation within common sense.”  

These European themed communities are not unique to Shanghai but range far beyond the outskirts of the metropolis. They can be found peppering suburban landscapes throughout the nation’s first-, second-, and third-tier cities; its inland and its coastal provinces; its poorer and its wealthier districts. Developers have constructed housing estates of varying prices and levels of luxury in order to put the theme homes within the reach of more than an elite few. Buyers with a range of incomes, from the ultra-wealthy to those of more modest means have all been targeted.  

Although statistics recording the exact prevalence of these themed developments are hard to come by, research and anecdotal evidence confirm that the seeds of China’s simulacrascape-building movement have spread throughout the country, giving rise to Romanesque villas, Swedish towns, British villages, mini-Versailles, and Californian communities in the environs of cities from Beijing to Wuhan. Chongqing boasts landmarks from two of America’s signature cities: a replica of the Chrysler Building, called “New York, New York,” stands not far from the Beverly Hills luxury villa development, home to “facsimiles of the gold stars of Hollywood Boulevard set into the paving stones.”  Fuyang officials built themselves their own “White House” in the form of the U.S. Capitol building, as did wealthy individuals in Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Nanjing, and Hangzhou.  Nanjing boasts Roman Vision and Hyde Park, Suzhou has Germany Villas, Guangzhou is home to Le Bonheur, and Foshan has The Paradiso. The title given to each development hints at the foreign fantasy that has been created within.  

In name, architectural design, branding, landscaping, management, and amenities, these simulacrascapes attempt to replicate for their residents and visitors the experience of living abroad in the interest of exploiting the cachet of Western lifestyles.  One of the most puzzling and fascinating aspects of China’s contemporary counterfeit cityscapes is the thoroughness and extent of the duplication of foreign landscapes. “It’s both stunning and extremely perplexing,” observed Harvard University professor Peter Rowe. How does the “foreignness” manifest itself? And how do these copies become convincing and recognizable? 

Although the inspiration for the foreign inflection of each town varies from one to the next —some taking their cue from Spain, others from Scandinavia, for example — most regularly rely on a consistent combination of material and nonmaterial techniques  to create a credible, coherent, and coordinated theme. The foreign enclaves establish their non-Chinese identity through three principal elements: the form of the individual structures (the architectural style of both commercial and residential units); the master plan (the layout and geometry of streets and structures); and nonmaterial signifiers that create a certain atmosphere (including promotional materials, controlled consumer processes, and recreational activities).  Interpretation goes hand in hand with replication, and even those developments that replicate Western originals with the greatest fidelity are ultimately a hybrid of Chinese and foreign elements, adapting Western forms to local preferences and tastes.

At the same time, however, indigenous routines are evolving and shifting within these themed territories. In part, what is so distinctive about these gated communities is the extent to which the planned neighborhood immerses its residents not only in an alien architectural form, but also in an alien style of life with alien quotidian rituals. The Western theme extends beyond the building frames, floor plans, and fixtures and into the rhetoric used to brand the enclaves; the landscaping of the development; and the activities, routines, and lifestyles choreographed for the residents and visitors. 

Bianca Bosker is the author of Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary ChinaShe is a graduate of Princeton University and is the executive tech editor at The Huffington Post.

For more information on Original Copies, click here.