Why China loves to build copycat towns

A woman dressed in a red dress walking in Thames Town, China

China is well known for its pirated DVDs and fake iPhones, but this "copycat culture" extends to architecture too - with whole towns sometimes replicated.

As you enter Thames Town, the honking and chaos of Chinese city life fall away.

There are no more street vendors selling steamed pork buns, and no more men hauling recyclables on tricycles.

The road starts to wind, and then, in the distance, you see what looks like a clock tower from a Cotswold village.

"It has this almost dreamlike quality of something European," says Tony Mackay, a British architect, and the master planner for the Thames Town housing scheme and the surrounding district of Songjiang.

When local officials hired Mackay in 2001, he found farms and ducks here.

Today, there are cobbled streets, pubs and half-timbered Tudor houses.

There's even a statue of Winston Churchill, and a medieval meeting hall that advertises chicken wings and beer in Chinese characters.

But Mackay is not happy. "It doesn't look quite right," he says. "It looks false."

A composite image showing a statue of Winston Churchill (left), a bicycle (top right), and a sign saying "Thames Town" (bottom right)

More pictures of Thames Town

Mackay says the architects who took on the designs for the buildings created a pastiche, throwing together different styles, and abandoning authenticity.

Some of the half-timbered houses are six storeys high, for example, and the windows on the church just don't look right, he says.

"The proportions are wrong. The use of the different stones is all wrong. It would never be used like that in the genuine English church," he says.

The houses in Thames Town were largely bought as investment properties, so the town has always been quiet. It is only just beginning to develop a real sense of life and community.

To Mackay, the place looks like a film set. In fact, one Western blogger said it reminded him of the film, The Truman Show.

A couple posing for photos in Thames Town, China

But Fan Yu Zhe couldn't care less.

I found Fan and his bride Sun Qi Yao looking deeply into each other's eyes as a photo assistant showered them with flower petals.

Thames Town is crawling with young couples who want to have their wedding photos taken here.

"I love European football, so I'm very interested in things from Europe," says Fan.

Find out more

A couple posing for wedding photos in front of the church in Thames Town, China

"I really hope I can visit the real Thames River one day, sit along the banks, drink a cup of coffee and enjoy the British sunshine."

Nearby, a woman named Zhang Li snacks on tangerines and plays cards with her mother and aunt.

Zhang says she has come here on her day off because Chinese towns are so crowded and commercial, but here it's green and pleasant. And as an office administrator, she can't afford to travel to England.

"Usually if you want to see foreign buildings, you have to go abroad," says Zhang. "But if we import them to China, people can save money while experiencing foreign-style architecture."

There's plenty of that in China.

Thames Town was built as part of Shanghai's "One City, Nine Towns" scheme, which saw a cluster of satellite towns built around the city, each in a different international style.

Elsewhere in China, there is a replica Eiffel Tower, a mock Tower Bridge - even a recreation of Stonehenge.

And last year, a replica of the entire Austrian alpine village of Hallstatt sprung up in the province of Guangdong. The original is a Unesco World Heritage site.

The world in China
Hallstatt in Austria (l), and the replica in China (r) Hallstatt #1 in Austria (l), and the replica of the village in China (r)
A replica Eiffel Tower in China A mini Eiffel Tower in Beijing - there's also a replica in Hangzhou in Zhejiang province
A replica of chateau Maisons-Laffitte on the outskirts of Beijing France's baroque Chateau de Maisons-Laffitte recreated on the outside Beijing. France is a popular theme...
A replica Venice in China ... As is Italy. You can take a trip on a gondola in China's very own version of Venice
A replica Capitol Hill/White House in China The White House and US Capitol are popular choices for local government buildings
Replica of London's Tower Bridge in China London's Tower Bridge - or near enough - has been transported to the city of Suzhou...
A replica Stonehenge in China ... And there's a copy of Stonehenge next to a new housing development in the east of China

These are all examples of China's craze for what Bianca Bosker, author of Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China, calls "duplitecture".

Of course, it's not just the Chinese who love to copy. A century and a half ago, the rapidly progressing United States was a hub of counterfeiting and copying and it too has a host of more recent architectural replicas, including country pavilions in Epcot in Florida, and plenty of examples in Las Vegas.

But according to Bosker, while many Westerners think of knock-off architecture as kitsch and bizarre, many in China find it truly lovely.

Knockoffs galore

Officials in China in front of a large pile of fake computer hardware and software

Ben Goodger, IP expert, Edwards ­Wildman:

"China is the world centre for counterfeiting. Whatever can make a quick buck - mobile phones, pirated DVDs, fake watches, jewellery, branded clothing and so on.

"There is a very different starting point. In China, to copy something is to show deep respect. Traditional society in China is very hierarchical. You have the masters of their art, and a lot of artists saw copying one of the masters - as exactly as possible - as being the highest thing they could do, because the master was the great genius.

"The idea of the work the artist creates being an extension of his individual personality - and therefore that to take that is not only unimaginative, but in some way immoral - is very much a typically Western idea. The idea of it being cheating in that sense doesn't have much depth in China.

"I'm not saying they are innocent, but there is this cultural attitude, that copying is a sign of respect."

Almost every major city in China has a residential suburb where people live in replica mansions, and as many as two-thirds of the properties for sale with some estate agents are Western-style, she says.

Bosker says that's partly because China has a different attitude towards copying.

"The culture of copy in China is very different from what we find in the West, where there's a sense that copying is something incredibly taboo, and to be avoided at all costs."

In China, she says, mimicry is seen as "a form of mastery", and is therefore not frowned upon - but encouraged.

This culture of copying has deep historical roots. As China's first emperor, Qin Shi Huang - of terracotta army fame - conquered rival kingdoms in the 3rd Century BC, he built a replica of each of their palaces within his own capital city.

Fast forward to today and the Chinese government often bankrolls major copycat projects.

It's a way of flexing its muscles, says Bosker. "China is, in a very symbolic way, showing off its ability to rearrange the cosmos, to sort of own the greatest hits of the West."

It's no accident, says Bosker, that the White House - the ultimate symbol of US power - is one of the most copied buildings in China.

But not all Chinese people are supportive of this copycat architecture.

"I don't like them at all," says Tong Ming, a Shanghai-based architect.

China has its own rich architectural heritage, says Tong, like the Classical Gardens of Suzhou, the Forbidden City in Beijing, and the country's traditional wooden buildings.

The Classical Gardens of Suzhou, China The Classical Gardens of Suzhou are a Unesco World Heritage site

Chinese people do value this history, he says, but, at a time of such rapid change, people find it more practical - and even comforting - to copy Western styles.

"I think it is quite a specific period of time - people cannot get accustomed to changing times.

"So it's quite understandable that they would follow something that they admire, or are familiar with from the mass media," says Tong.

"People want something with a quite clear identity. They couldn't find exactly what next, so they turn to something they are familiar with."

The Chinese dream

"The way to live best is to eat Chinese food, drive an American car, and live in a British house" - resident of a Western-style housing development

Source: Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China

Tong thinks, in time, Chinese architecture will find its own path once again.

In the meantime, some new housing developments are creating Western-style architecture "with a Chinese skin", says Bosker - incorporating a Chinese garden layout, for example, or feng shui principles.

British architect Tony Mackay thinks China's imitation towns are a fad - a by-product of China's desire to connect with the world after decades of relative isolation - but he sees a new trend emerging.

"The younger generations here they don't want old-fashioned style, they want modernism. They want something new, which connects to their gear, their iPads, and their modern lifestyle," he says.

One example is the sleek, ultra-modern, prestige Wangjing SOHO project in Beijing, by British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid.

A composite image showing Zaha Hadid's plans for Wangjing SOHO in Beijing (l) and a model  of the Meiquan 22nd Century building in Chongqing (r) Plans for Wangjing SOHO in Beijing (l), and a model of a very similar building in Chongqing (r)

When it's finished, it will resemble three fish-like forms emerging from a stream.

There's just one problem. A suspiciously similar structure is being built in the city of Chongqing.

According to one industry publication, the alleged copy may be finished before the original.

Ruth Morris was reporting for The World, which is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH

You can follow the Magazine on Twitter and on Facebook

More on This Story

In today's Magazine

Features

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.