China’s Counterfeit Cities

China has a reputation for producing counterfeit technology, fashion, and Starbucks. Then there’s fake Paris.

Growing up, I was a huge fan of the Harry Potter series. The rich fantasy offered by a well-developed world that grew in complexity just as I grew older was fascinating to a young Ben. With seven core novels and several supplementary sources of wizarding world lore, it’s hard to pick a favorite. Forced at wandpoint to make a decision, I’d go for Harry Potter and the Leopard-Walk-Up-to-Dragon. It’s one of the series’ rarer titles, and I can’t blame and your fake fan brain for not having read it. Admittedly, I haven’t read all of it either, though not for lack of trying. The reason? Harry Potter and the Leopard-Walk-Up-to-Dragon (HP&tLWutD for real fans) is a real book, but it’s not a real legal book, at least not in the West. It’s a knock-off, straight from the world capital of knock-offs: China.

I should be clear; this piece is definitely about China, but before we delve into that, I am morally required to include some excerpts from Harry Potter and the Leopard-Walk-Up-to-Dragon. Again, I couldn’t find a download link for the whole piece in English, but I did find a few translated sections from a dedicated fan’s personal website. Anyway, supplement your thirst for wizarding world lore with the following:

  • Harry did not know how long this bath would take, when he would finally scrub off that oily, sticky layer of cake icing. For someone who had grown into a cultured, polite young man, a layer of sticky filth really made him feel sick. He lay in the high quality porcelain tub ceaselessly wiping his face. In his thoughts there was nothing but Dudley’s fat face, fat as his Aunt Petunia’s fat rear end
  • 4 Privet Drive to him was his childhood heaven, but also his childhood hell
  • Harry also wanted to bring “Introduction to Transformations” so if Dudley blundered into the room he could change into a huge monster and scare Dudley half to death. After thinking for a while he felt pity for the obese pathetic worm, and decided to bring his Marauder’s Map instead
  • Hey, how come this rain is sweet and sour?

It’s pretty clear from these passages alone that Leopard Walk Up to Dragon skyrockets past the fantastical complexity of Rowling’s core series. The potential for the rest of the novel is incalculable. In a surprise twist, though, the Young family abridgment claims that, past the first couple chapters, the rest of the story is a word-for-word reprint of The Hobbit, which is insanely creative. Since Tolkien first penned the central four books of his universe, subsequent authors have pined for the opportunity to tell a story of a similar quality. What is “similar” worth, though, when you can tell the same exact story with your own protagonist? Still, it’s important to maintain artistic license, and the book’s translator notes that some things were updated for the newly synthesized tale. For example, the title of chapter six of The Hobbit, “Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Fire”, has no bearing on the Harry Potter universe. A cursory search of “Frying Pan” on the Harry Potter wiki gives me a measly ten results. Do they even fit in with the lore? Instead, the author masterfully reminds you of the magical world we’ve been invited to inhabit by renaming the chapter “Flying Broom 2000“. Look at that. Majestic. You’ve read Harry Potter, or at least seen it. There are definitely flying brooms in there. And now that we’ve mentioned those brooms, there’s really no reason to invoke their name for the rest of the chapter. A flawless execution of the literary red herring. Leave them wanting more.

Harry Potter and the Leopard-Walk-Up-to-Dragon isn’t the only knock-off Harry Potter book mass produced in China. According to the New York Times, there’s also Harry Potter and the Waterproof Pearl, Harry Potter and the Chinese Porcelain Doll, Harry Potter and the Platform Nine and Three-Quarters, Harry Potter and the Half-Blooded Relative Prince, and the high water mark of literary achievement, Harry Potter and the Big Funnel.

Harry Potter isn’t a unique obsession in China. In the right corners of the world’s most populous country, an interested consumer can find knock-off anything. Chinese manufacturers copy Western snack foods, children’s cartoons, and laundry detergent. Left to their own devices, dedicated forgers will copy entire businesses. Sure, there’s your common everyday Walmart knock-off, but look deeper and you’ll find the real special ones, like Obama Fried Chicken and Star Fucks Coffee.

Image: Ken Lee on Flickr

This phenomenon is well-known in China. Locals call it “Shanzhai”, Mandarin for “copycat”. A UN figure using data from 2008-2010 indicated that 70% of counterfeit goods seized worldwide are produced in China. The forgeries are money-motivated, but they’re not always as openly awful glorious as Harry Potter and the Leopard’s Physically Proximate Association with a Dragon. In his piece Untimely Meditations (MIT Press), author Byung-Chul Han explains that the Shanzhai name was initially applied to knock-off smartphones that worked just as well as, if not better than, the models they copied. It’s a step above a drunken retelling of The Hobbit, but internally, it’s a capitalist’s nightmare. An article published in Business Insider Australia described counterfeit Apple stores that look real enough to have fooled employees. 

Much like the politburo and central committee of the People’s Republic itself, China’s knockoff problem transcends capitalism; a 2014 statement by the National Institutes of Health found that, while the United States retracted the most scientific papers, China retracted the most for plagiarism and duplicate publication.

On the world stage, though, just as in mixed-class middle schools across the country, China’s counterfeit goods are being noticed and called out. An article in Fortune details a statement by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce demanding that China stop stealing American intellectual property. According to The Diplomat, China is already focused on the problem. Author David Volodzko writes, “China became a member of the World Intellectual Property Organization in 1980, the Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property in 1985 and the Madrid Agreement for the International Registration of Trademarks in 1989. In 1992 it signed a bilateral agreement with the United States for copyright protection and in 1995 it signed the Sino-U.S. Agreement on Intellectual Property Rights.”

The article goes on to describe advances China has made in copyright protection in recent decades and attributes the problem less to the Beijing government and more to the local governments charged with executing state policy. In other words, counterfeit goods are the problem of the city, not the state. But what if the city is counterfeit too?

No, really. What if it is? Fake phones, watches and handbags are nothing. Fake Starbucks with the word “Fuck” in their names impressed me five paragraphs ago, but no longer. Let’s talk about counterfeit Paris.

It’s called Tianducheng, or “Sky Capital City”, a planned housing development outside of Hangzhou. The entire city is designed to emulate Paris, from its art nouveau street lamps and sloping Mansard roofs to a 3:1 scale replica of the Eiffel tower. Paris is a huge destination for Chinese tourists, so the goal was authenticity; live in (or visit) Paris, without leaving China.

Image: MNXANL on Wikipedia

Tianducheng is a standout example though, right? Paris tends to be uniquely adored by East Asian tourists, so much so that there’s a real psychological phenomenon attributed to the feeling of disappointment Japanese people experience when they discover the city of lights is a real city and not the oft-depicted pinnacle of urban beauty. According to (pretty old) data from the Japanese embassy in France, the aptly-named Paris Syndrome affects about 20 Japanese people every year, who experience psychosomatic symptoms ranging from dizziness to hallucinatory episodes all stemming from that initial disillusionment fostered by insane expectations of the French capital.

Let’s be clear about one thing: the Chinese are not the Japanese. One of the main differences between the two is that the Chinese live in China. The point stands, though; Paris has a big image in the East, clearly big enough to justify the construction of an entire replica City half-way around the world. How many other cities could the Chinese possibly copy?

Let’s start with London. Thames Town is a suburban development in the Shanghai metro area with an unmistakably British theme. An ABC piece describes Tudor architecture, red phone booths, and security guards dressed in British uniforms. An article by Bianca Bosker in Slate describes statues “honoring British greats, like Princess Diana, Winston Churchill, and Harry Potter” (no word yet on a statue of the leopard who famously walked up to dragon). There’s a semi-replica of Tower Bridge with four towers instead of two. Again, artistic license.

Image: Marc van der Chijs on Flickr

These replica cities aren’t limited to a European theme, or even to particularly urban environments. The ABC piece mentions a knock-off Jackson Hole, Wyoming complete with its own Route 66 (which, in reality, misses Wyoming by about 500 miles). Obviously there’s more. There’s the famous Grand Canal in Venice and its replica in Liaoning, Anting German Town (Berlin) and Holland Town outside of Shanghai, Spanish Town in Fengcheng, and a full remake of Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon in Fuzhou.

But then there are the low-profile copies of the Alpine villages of Hallstatt in Austria and Interlaken in Switzerland. One of Shanghai’s suburbs is designed to look exactly like Sigtuna, a town of fewer than 8,500 people in Sweden.

The copycat cities are a uniquely Chinese phenomenon. In the ABC article China’s Fake Cities, authors Bob Woodruff, Karson Yiu, and Alexa Valiente write that the habit of rebuilding old cities further East rather than establishing new ones started in the 1990s as the Chinese economy was starting to pick up steam and had begun to churn out a new wave of wealthier Chinese people. These newly-moneyed folks wanted houses that made them feel more successful, so they turned to Western depictions of urban success. 

In an interview with ABC News, Bianca Bosker (who penned the Slate article referenced heavily here, and also wrote a book on this) explained that the duplitecture phenomenon is limited pretty strictly to monuments and architectural styles that command an image of wealth and success; you’ll find no recreation of the ailing industrial towns of rural and suburban Ohio here. In the piece, she goes on to describe a popular local mantra arguing that the best way to live was to eat Chinese food, drive an American car, and live in a British house. 

But the trend of duplitecture may not be as popular with the Chinese people as the absolute number of these developments may suggest. In China, the existence of a city isn’t enough to prove the existence of people there. Indeed, at least up until recent years, China had a pretty substantial problem with ghost malls, entire malls built to be inhabited but never filled with commercial tenants. Detractors from China’s duplitecture developments claim this is the same situation: large-scale housing developments built without demand and largely underfilled by occupants.

An op-ed by Onat Kibaroglu published in the Chinese Global Times cautions an international audience against criticism of Chinese copycat cities, noting first that the practice of copying elements of foreign architecture in a developing country is not unique to China (the colonial Americas had a habit of broad artistic license as well). Kibaroglu goes on to claim that the cities are less lived-in residential conglomerations and more urban theme parks; popular wedding locales and budget substitutes for foreign vacations.

In an interview with Slate, an architect at Ben Wood Studio Shanghai largely corroborated Kibaroglu’s assessment, claiming that duplitecture was “already outdated, even in China”. The Slate piece went on to reference the fate of Liaoning’s Holland Village, a windmill-and-canal-filled Dutch duplicate that included a pretty sizable recreation of The Hague. Just ten years after its construction, Holland Town was torn down for lack of interest. According to the ABC News piece cited earlier, the Chinese government has begun to react to the duplitecture fad, announcing that the cities are “at odds with socialist core values” and expressing an interest in renaming them.

Image (Holland Town): whiz-ka on Flickr

In Thames Town, Bianca Bosker interviewed Anthony Mackay, a British architect who took part in work on the project. Mackay doesn’t hide his disappointment in Thames Town (which he consulted on but didn’t design); he describes the development as “pure imitation” absent of history, commenting “Tourists in Paris and Venice know that beyond the façade is a genuine history. They are trodding on the ground that Henry the Eighth trod on. Here, you’re trodding on the ground that was a duck farm.”.

In Tianducheng, the Shanghai Paris, ABC News noted a similar pessimism expressed by the locals, many of whom expressed an interest in the cheap cost of living but a pretty strong apathy in the cultural basis of the town’s design. One woman interviewed for the piece went as far as saying she didn’t like it there, that the fake Eiffel Tower is embarrassing, and that “no one will think it is cool”. Yikes. 

More recently, though, Bosker describes a different story. Returning to a once-empty Tianducheng and expecting that same urban void, she writes that the city is recently under new management, and that the new development company’s chairman estimated a population of 40,000 (a figure immediately opposed by someone Bosker describes as a “bored twenty-something” who suggests it’s closer to the 14,000 – 18,000 range). The new Tianducheng retains some of its European inspiration — boutiques sell French designer clothing and Bosker describes accidentally walking into a plastic surgery clinic that sells French designer noses. Overall, though, the vibe in the city is increasingly local. Bakeries that may be expected to deal mostly in conspicuously-placed baguettes and French pastries instead sell traditionally Chinese baked goods. Back in Thames Town, a Chinese local interviewed eating Chinese food at a local restaurant expressed horror when asked about the prospect of courting more on-theme eateries, asking “why would anyone want that?” and adding “British food is disgusting!”

Bosker finishes her piece with an appeal to historical reason, comparing these new cities in China to the palatial estate of oil magnate John Paul Getty, itself largely a copy of a Roman palace that came before it. She writes that, “we forget the originals were once off-putting and conspicuous themselves. We expect columns and crenellations to have the respectable patina of age. They didn’t always.” Regarding the Getty Villa, she includes part of an assessment by essayist Joan Didion, who writes, “Ancient marbles once appeared just as they appear here: as strident, opulent evidence of imperial power and acquisition,”

Image (Getty Museum): Pixabay

The gist? Yeah, they’re copying foreign buildings, but the Chinese are far from the first to do it. Their recent development and our implicit assessment of China as a foreign power paints them in a light separate from that enjoyed by the more familiar billionaires who replicate images of European opulence in an attempt to cultivate those hot monarch vibes. Even then, our assessment of these duplitecture cities can only go so far. At some point, a building becomes a building, and for the commuters, new families, and young people who have come to inhabit cities like Tianducheng, the desire to live in a functioning, low-rent apartment with running water may supercede any care for architectural integrity in the same way that an American clientele interested in absurdly massive lawns, above-ground wine cellars, and “just a little extra space in the second bedroom closet” aren’t likely to consider the architectural integrity of their McMansions.

I think what I’m really saying is that, at the end of a long day, all any of us really want is a stable home with a roof over our heads; a house with space to, before bed, sit with our kids and read a few chapters about a boy wizard and the brave leopard who dared walk up to dragon. And then eighteen chapters of The Hobbit.

See pictures of some of the cities named above from Insider here.

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  • Featured image (Tianducheng’s L’avenue des Champs-Élysées) by Wikipedia user MNXANL

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