Western culture has been seeping into the oriental way of life for centuries, but rather than being fought against as it was under the starkly communist rule of earlier times, in the twenty-first century where capitalism is king it is being embraced like a long-lost cousin, and nowhere more strikingly than in the field of architecture. Is this the highest form of flattery, an ‘adolescent phase’ – as one Chinese architect Ruan Hoa put it – or merely a demonstration of a lack of originality?
All across China reproductions of some of the greatest western landmarks have been springing up; some quaint; some confusing; others downright bizarre. While Thames Town, or ‘Little London’ sits snugly in the heart of Shanghai with picture-postcard half-timbered ‘Tudor’ buildings, cobbled streets and a statue of Winston Churchill, in Tianjin a grand canal provides the heart of a miniature Venice, and on the outskirts of Shanghai a Parisian street, complete with scaled-down Eiffel Tower, represents our Gallic friends. Huaxi boasts a Sydney Opera House, Arc de Triomphe, and numerous other buildings of western architectural note.
And it doesn’t stop there; in an ongoing RMB 2 billion (roughly £201 million) project, a 15th century fishing village in Tianjin has been demolished to make way for the truly ambitious recreation of Manhattan, complete with Hudson River.
So what’s fuelling this move towards ersatz architecture? With such bold designs as the infamous Bird's Nest used for the 2008 Olympics, Beijing's new Phoenix International Media Centre, the National Centre for Performing Arts, the National Aquatic Centre and the unfortunately (phallic) shaped headquarters of the People's Daily newspaper in Beijing, there can be no want of originality. It seems that in China the skill of replication itself is highly prized, making the peopled pastiches of western wonders a matter of prowess and pride.
Architecture means different things to different people, but most agree that it should be emotive. Love them, loathe them, or feel slightly bemused by them, China’s copycat creations are certainly that.
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