Faux foreign appeal

By Vera Penêda Source:Global Times Published: 2012-8-15 19:20:03

Western-style buildings at Tonghui town remain largely deserted more than a year after they were constructed. Photo: Vera Penêda/GT
       Western-style buildings at Tonghui town remain largely deserted more than a year after they were constructed. Photo: Vera Penêda/GT

Puzzled passersby stare daily in bemusement at a colorful compound south of Dawanglu Bridge in Chaoyang district. The fenced, 1.5-hectare town, aptly named "Tonghui" after the river it's nestled along, stands out in the neighborhood due to its European-inspired architecture. Buildings have random names such as "Jack's Daniel's," "Nights of Barcelona," "Gasthouse" (German for "guesthouse") and "Cleopatre" (French for "Cleopatra") possibly suggesting that bars, restaurants, shops and hotels will soon sprout within the gated ghost town.

A couple of foreigners passing by on a motorcycle couldn't help but pull over to take photos while Metro Beijing was at the scene. "It looks very fake, like a mixture of different styles," commented Magda Gamrel, 23, a German tourist visiting her boyfriend and resident of Beijing for three months, Oscar Gonzalez.

"It looks like a theme park," said Gonzalez, a 26-year-old Spaniard. "Sanlitun seems more genuine, but perhaps local people will enjoy a place like this."

Kitsch or cool?

While winning approval from foreigners might be tricky, some Chinese locals are impressed with the latest addition to Chaoyang district.

"It's very fashionable and close to Guomao and buildings like SOHO New Town and Shin Kong Place," explained Zheng Feng, 28, who was spotted taking photos of the compound. "If it turns into a bar street, it'll easily attract locals because Sanlitun is further away."

The local government reportedly invested 400 million yuan ($63.5 million) to build Tonghui town, dubbed "an integrated real estate project of business offices and commercial leisure" slated to become a rendition of Sanlitun's bar street.

"It's an imitation of towns located at the foot of the [Swiss] Alps with lakeside-style architecture … typical of mountain residential areas," the Beijing Evening News reported in June last year, accompanying its story with photos of how the town would appear once finished. The compound aims to revitalize the riverside landscape, the story said.

On June 30 this year, almost a year after construction was completed, more photos of Tonghui emerged online showing a stage overlooking an area filled with chairs for an audience. Web users speculated that the preparations were for a ceremony to mark the official opening of Tonghui town.

"We don't know when it will open," said a salesman surnamed Zhang from the Tonghui International Media Plaza, the company managing the compound. "We launched the first round of rental apartments in 2010, which was well received," added Zhang, who declined to name the architect responsible for the project.

'Doomed to fail'

Advertisements for rented apartments in Tonghui can be found online at various real estate agency websites, although phone calls enquiring about most properties revealed they are no longer listed.

Zhang confirmed that Tonghui is destined to become a Western-style hub of bars and restaurants. Each building spans between 500 and 1,000 square meters, while rent fees range from 12 to 15 yuan daily per square meter, Zhang added.

He refused to confirm the total investment in the compound that he billed as "noble and with business potential." Pinpointing exactly what this potential is has proven difficult. A year after being built, Tonghui remains empty. It joins the ranks of the deserted, fake Disneyland built near the Great Wall and perhaps China's most infamous ghost town of Ordos in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.

"I think this project is doomed to fail," noted Colby Suter, an American architect at Beijing-based architectural firm MAD Studio. "Replica projects like this appeal mostly to Chinese locals who couldn't otherwise experience whatever it is that they are simulating. Sanlitun on the other hand is a haven for foreigners in the city."

Suter added that foreigners wouldn't be lured by the "fake feel" of Tonghui, while its bar street night life wasn't something local Chinese "typically participate in."

However, architecture critic Fang Zhenning believes it's too early to write off Tonghui as a failed development. Fang hailed its commercial potential, but conceded it was "neither innovative architecture nor a fine rendition."

"It's nice to see Tonghui replace the old farmer's market that used to be there. What was once chaotic and filthy is now home to European flair," said Fang, who lives in the neighborhood.

"It definitely benefits Chaoyang district. As a replica, it will promote the multifunctional and multicultural development of the area and meet the demands of those looking for a more sophisticated lifestyle."

Scenic copycats

China's reputation for mass producing cheap imitations has increasingly included knock-off architecture over the past decade. In 2006, Thames town named after the famous English river was built in Songjiang district, about 30 kilometers west of downtown Shanghai. It proved to be a flop even though many investors snapped up properties due to few people taking up permanent residence in the virtual ghost town.

Neighborhoods modeled on Paris, Vienna, New York and Zurich have also sprouted across the country in recent years with Chinese characteristics and varying degrees of success.

Despite the appeal these foreign-esque cities have among couples eager for an exotic piece of real estate, building such towns doesn't come cheap. Thames town alone cost $785 million to accommodate 10,000 people. A replica village based on Austria's UNESCO heritage-listed site Hallstatt built in Huizhou, Guangdong Province, cost 6 billion yuan. Days after the town was opened in June this year, many homes in Huizhou's Hallstatt had already been purchased, Chinese media reported.

"In a city where you walk down the street and truly don't know what you'll see next, it's appropriate that you can turn the corner and see a block of buildings taken straight out of Europe. It's completely unexpected, yet somehow fitting," said Suter.

Developers justify the hefty investments with business opportunities and tourism booms from less wealthy (or more artificially-inclined) tourists wanting the experience of traveling abroad without leaving China.

"It seems like there has been a recent shift away from large-scale building projects, which is an easy way to keep up with targets for GDP growth. Now, the focus is on building an economy more driven by local consumption," said Suter. "If anything, I see these replica villages as a result of this new economic focus."

Wu Kameng contributed to this story

Posted in: Tips, Metro Beijing

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