You’re not far from Shanghai, yet the spire of the Victorian revival church in front of you casts its shadow across a medieval town square. A row of Tudor homes are just around the corner from a string of pubs and shops. But you notice everything is closed. The only people you see are the occasional wedding party taking photographs. A sign at the entrance reads:
“Welcome to Thames Town. Taste authentic British style small town. Enjoy sunlight, enjoy nature. Enjoy your life and holiday. Dream of Britain. Live in Thames Town.“
It’s not quite right, much like the rest of the town.
The borough known as Thames Town was part of a 2001 initiative to move millions from Shanghai’s city center into nine international suburbs. The concept had noble intentions, but things did not go as planned.
Thames Town is the English name for a model city constructed in the Songjiang District of China, 25 miles (40 km) southwest of Shanghai. On display: Architecture in classic British themes featuring cobblestone streets, Victorian terraces, and red telephone booths.
Part of China’s “One City, Nine Towns” initiative, it was built from scratch in just over three years at a cost of about ¥2 billion ($330m/£197m/€238m). The initiative was established by the Shanghai Planning Commission in 2001 as part of a policy to decentralize and shift populations away from the congested city center.
The plan was the brainchild of Shanghai’s former Communist Party Secretary Huang Ju, and thus had strong political backing. Now a member of the state council, Ju planned for nine locations each featuring a different international theme:
An international design competition was held to win the design contracts. In the case of Thames Town, WS Atkins won the bid for design while Shanghai Songjiang New City Construction was enlisted for the build. Sales and marketing would be handled by Shanghai Henghe Real Estate.
When project master planner and Briton Tony Mackay first visited Songjiang in 2001, he discovered the area was farmland, sparsely populated featuring more ducks than people. But the Shanghai Planning Commission had big plans, and Mackay was up to the task.
(click thumbnails to enlarge)
photos courtesy Huai-Chun Hsu
The real estate company wasted no time effusing praise for the project. Shanghai Henghe’s literature boasted: “Culture creates value. Thames Town, a representation of British architectural civilisation, has since integrated itself into Songjiang, rejuvenating this ancient land with its modernity and vitality.”
Completed in 2006, Thames Town is an amalgamation of British culture and history across one square kilometer (slightly less than half of a square mile). It showcases landmarks from all over the United Kingdom in a sometimes odd proximity to one another.
Nine universities were planned for the English-themed town, for an expected 10,000 students and staff. Industry would be supported by proposed high-tech factories. A medical complex would lead research in medicine and train new doctors. Retail would be supported by faux-English shops while a push was made to lure grocers such as Tesco and Sainsbury’s.
Developers also wanted a waxwork exhibition, although plans with Madame Tussauds never got past the discussion phase. There were also discussions regarding construction of a new shopping mall in Songjiang to rival some of the largest in the world.
The design of Thames Town has remained largely faithful to English influence – even if there’s randomness to the application. The rows of Tudor mansions which line the residential block of Cavendish Court don’t look out of place until you see Gothic and Victorian buildings a block away.
Nearby Holly Health neighborhood looks right out of the oak suburbs of Surrey. If not for the Chinese characters on the signs, it might be hard to tell where you were in the world. But the bronze James Bond statue next to the sign for “London Street” starts to tip you off this might not be England.
Other clues are minor: Homes are closer together. Larger windows are used as preferred by the Chinese. Otherwise, the homes stray minimally from the British prescription and the experience can still be surprisingly authentic. Red phone booths and actual British post boxes are scattered about town; the lamp posts were even imported from England.
Comparisons to Failed Developments
The architects were well aware of the stigmas that would be affixed to the project by critics. References to other failed project cities were predictable and rampant.
Paul Rice, principal architect on the WS Atkins contract, admitted “…we are aware of the Disneyland implications. This could become a joke if built in the wrong way. But this is a working community, not a theme park. Compared to some other Chinese towns, it will be a pleasant place to live.”
If some of the town’s features don’t look authentic or fit with the reality of the original landmark, Belfast-born Rice shared the following explanation: English designers were bound to the whims of the Chinese developers. Plans called for 500 years of English architectural history combined into one functioning community, with its own homes, schools, shops, and recreational areas.
photos courtesy Huai-Chun Hsu
Rice added that the landmarks had to be meaningfully integrated, and it can difficult to feature architecture of varying eras in close proximity while keeping perceptions away from that of a theme-park. The Epcot Center comparisons were inevitable.
Planner Tony Mackay acknowledged the limitations of recreating a different culture in a foreign land, but admits “it has this almost dreamlike quality of something European.”
Ultimately that’s what the Shanghai Planning Commission wanted, even if it the result wasn’t rooted in authenticity. A release from the SPC seemed oblivious to the quirks:
“Visitors will soon be unable to tell where Europe ends and China begins.”
The commission believed that to a non-connoisseur of Anglo architecture, the buildings looked British enough.
Real Estate Bubble
It’s not the theme park feel or the kitschy nature of the town which has rendered it a ghost town. The Tudor, Victorian, and Georgian-style homes still beckon to Chinese Anglophiles, but rapidly escalating prices have kept them out of reach for all but the wealthy.
How bad is the real estate situation in China? The average home price-to-income ratio, a statistic tracked around the world, sees some of its highest numbers in China.
Thames Town has not escaped the escalating values. Reported asking prices for three-bedroom villas reached ¥6 million ($1M/£585k/€706k), pricing the homes out of the market for the intended professor, student, and factory workers.
Despite obvious vacancies around town, real estate firm Shanghai Henghe announced brisk sales. To date 95% of the units have been announced as sold, but low occupation rates and empty streets tell us purchases were likely made by wealthy absentee owners.
photos courtesy Huai-Chun Hsu
Businesses & the Copycat Culture
A lack of residents has resulted in empty storefronts in Thames Town. Visitors were supposed to quench thirst in one of the many bars inspired by pubs in Birmingham – or shop in covered markets reminiscent of Covent Garden.
There is a scale replica of the Christ Church from Clifton Down in Bristol. The fish and chips pub was copied from The Cross in Chester, while another reflects building cues from Lyme Regis, Dorset.
However the copied businesses were merely façades, storefronts meant to capture the illusion of being in England. Most were empty and waiting for suitors. The explanation for the obvious facsimiles was offered by architect Paul Rice:
“The names and designs of storefronts were requested by the client and meant to be decorative placeholders. The client reassured us when people move in and it becomes a shoe shop or it becomes a clothing shop, they’ll change the name.”
In China, a copy does not share the negative connotation of its western counterpart as there are distinct differences between Chinese and Western attitudes toward facsimiles. In the West counterfeiting is a definite crime, viewed as fraud and theft. But China has a history of perfecting copies, beginning with its first emperor Qin Shi Huang. He built replicas of palaces from his conquered rivals as trophies from his conquests.
In China a copy can be a sign of respect – and the process is seen as an art. Mimicry is something to master: The better the copy, the more regarded the artist. It’s no coincidence the most copied building in China today is the White House, a modern-day symbol of western power.
Western opinion has been critical, but ironically one of the biggest critics is the town’s architect, Tony Mackay. He says the film-set feel of the town is likely just a fad, part of the “duplitecture” spreading across China and a by-product of the country’s near-millennia of isolation from western culture.
“It doesn’t look quite right,” opines Mackay. “It looks false. The proportions are wrong. The use of different stones is all wrong. It would never be used like that in the genuine English church.”
We call the knock-off Thames Town bizarre and kitschy, but we forget it wasn’t built for us. The replica town was designed and built for Chinese citizens like office administrator Zhang Li, who admitted she couldn’t afford to travel to England:
“Usually if you want to see foreign architecture, you have to go abroad. But if we import them to China, people can save money while experiencing foreign culture.”
Real estate agent John Lu downplays the knock-off accusations with pragmatism. According to Lu, “Ninety-nine of 100 Chinese will tell you they don’t know Italian from Spanish from French. They just know it costs a lot and it’s different – so it’s good.”
Lu says the exotic is a reflection of wealth in China, so clients buy into a development to differentiate themselves from the “commoners.” Shanghai-based architect Tong Ming sheds more light on the differing Chinese tastes:
“The way to live best is to eat Chinese food, drive an American car, and live in a British house.”
photos courtesy Huai-Chun Hsu
Tourism in a Ghost Town
Despite the positive reported home sales numbers, Songjiang remains a ghost town. The distance between Thames Town and Shanghai – not to mention the daily rush hour commuters must contend with – has seen most owners opt to stay in the city.
The result is what appears to be a seasonal resort – only it’s never in season. Critics have called the town a real-life Truman Show, a reference to the 1998 movie chronicling a man who unwittingly lives his life in a fake town.
But Thames Town is not completely empty; the classic English cues have proved a popular backdrop for newlyweds, where English-themed weddings are in vogue. The town’s main square and classic church offer a picturesque landscape for wedding photographers.
Commercial occupancy of the city has improved since the city was opened in 2006; a few fashion retailers have appeared, along with some art galleries and corner shops selling various jewelry and trinkets. The church has re-opened with a priest and even a Christian-themed gift shop.
If you want to visit, don’t expect much in the way of activities. The majority of the stores are still empty, there are no amusement rides, and the town doesn’t have official hours of being open or closed. From Shanghai, a trip down the Metro Line 8 to Songjiang Xincheng, then a short taxi ride to Thames Town.
The attraction is seeing 8/10th-scale half-timbered homes, forever-empty pubs, and red British phone boxes in China. On second thought, that just might be worth a visit.
The reasons for the failures of the Nine Towns project vary depending on whom you ask. Some point to the faux appearance or inaccurate scaling of the buildings.
Others cite the cultural considerations, such as the Chinese custom of a tightly-knit village lifestyle conflicting with the progressive urban experiments conducted by the Shanghai Planning Commission. Another case in point: Western five-bedroom villas with maid’s quarters are too large for most Chinese raised in a one-child policy era China.
Much of the reporting on the Nine Towns project has been rightfully cynical, but millions of Chinese would otherwise have little access to western culture. The problem of empty cities and absentee ownership is not limited to quirky developments like Thames Town, but stretchesacrossChina.
Ghost cities are the result of a socioeconomic phenomena in China, one agnostic of stylistic architecture and representative of an overambitious growth plan exacerbated by the growing wealth gap. However it seems disingenuous to point to architecture as the reason for town vacancy; if the working-class can’t afford to buy the homes, does it matter what the houses look like?
Thames Town has its warts but it also offers regular citizens – who would otherwise never know what it’s like to fly in to Heathrow – a chance to walk down an English lane. Nothing is as good as the original, but to the people of a country cut off from the west for thousands of years? It’s close enough.