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China’s Replica Cities

About a decade ago, western news services began to publish stories and photosets about copycat cities in China. Pictures of replicas of famous landmarks like the Eiffel Tower or the White House began to circulate. These towns weren’t amusement parks or tourist destinations, though— they were meant to be bustling suburbs outside of some of China’s biggest cities. Chinese citizens looking to get away from all of the hustle and bustle of the urban areas could move to the outskirts of town in a replica of Paris, Orange County, or Austria. Most of them were hailed as failed projects and ghost towns at the time, but that has begun to change.

Today, some of these towns have become popular suburban destinations, but they’ve had to make some changes to get there. This style of copying is known as duplitecture, where architects focus on recreating already-existing structures instead of designing new ones. It was even the theme of a large development project called “One City, Nine Towns.” However, critics point out that our understanding of these cities has revealed the warped way that many modern cities are viewed today. It seems that China’s replica cities are neither unique nor original. Let’s get started.

One City, Nine Towns

An imitation of English market town styles

In 2001, the Shanghai Planning Commission (SPC) and then-mayor Chen Liangyu sought to cope with Shanghai’s rapidly expanding urban population. With the populace increasing from about 8.6 to 14.8 million over the previous decade, congestion in the city reached dramatic levels. So, the officials decided to build new suburban areas in the nearby region, some as far as one-hundred kilometers away, closer to neighboring cities like Hangzhou. The plan was called “One City, Nine Towns,” and it relied on more than just new development in less-crowded areas to draw in potential homebuyers.

Instead, the development focused on creating an environment unlike anything found in China by attempting to recreate environments found in other parts of the world. This wasn’t exactly a new idea, especially in China. American cities have long been influenced by the European communities from which so many early immigrants came. Similarly, American architecture heavily influenced modern Chinese buildings— the White House became a popular inspiration for Chinese courthouses and hotels. However, “One City, Nine Towns” took this concept to a new level. 

Selecting nine areas, mostly European, as inspiration, the SPC hired architects who were familiar with the source material. For their German-inspired neighborhood, Anting German Town, they brought in Albert Speer Jr., the son of the most notorious German architect in history, a famous Nazi architect. Speer Jr., initially based in Frankfurt, established a new office in Shanghai to focus on replicating the colorful Bauhaus style that marked some of Germany’s most iconic cityscapes. But the replica wasn’t limited to architecture. German businesses moved into the area, including Volkswagen, who built their largest Chinese manufacturing plant just down the road. Restaurants focused on creating an authentic Bavarian atmosphere, down to the bratwurst, pretzels, and beer. Statues of famous German inventors and composers stand throughout the city. They even held an annual Oktoberfest, where Chinese citizens could get an authentic experience of what it’s like to live in Germany.

To further enhance the city’s non-Chinese culture, standard practices like hang-drying laundry and enclosing balconies were banned, as was repainting houses. This was all part of the plan for creating a genuinely foreign world for locals to live in.

Except, it turned out that this wasn’t a good plan for attracting Chinese people. The town, which has a capacity for 50,000 residents, has remained mostly empty throughout its existence. When Phase 1 of the project was opened in 2007, no one purchased space in the city, and the project’s second and final phase was canceled. The area became little-more than a destination for wedding photographers and social media personalities to use as a unique backdrop.

This became a common theme for many of Shanghai’s replica districts. In the end, only seven of the nine towns were completed, but they were enough to draw the attention of people around the world, if not new residents. All of the completed portions include some of the most iconic, if not cliche, aspects of Europe’s most beloved locales. In Holland Town, visitors can see windmills, cobblestone streets, and quaint canals. Copies of the Netherlands Maritime Museum, the Bijenkorf department store, and Hofwijck mansion stand out on the street corners. Like Anting Town, Holland Town has become little more than a destination, devoid of residents. Sweden Town and other western-inspired districts have met similar fates.

However, not all of the replica cities have become massive failures. In fact, within the last decade, the most famous of all of them may have cracked the code.

Sky City and Thames Town

Perhaps China’s most famous replica city is Sky City, or Tianducheng, which was part of the One City, Nine Towns plan despite being closer to Hangzhou than Shanghai. Sky City is modeled after the French capital of Paris. There’s a model of the Eiffel Tower at a one-third scale, reaching 108-meters tall. The town’s center boulevard reflects the Champs-Élysées, with Haussman-style apartments running along its sides. Like the other replicas, it was full of experiences of French culture shoehorned into the city. Residents were encouraged to dine at the same time as Parisians, with restaurants not offering dinner until after 7 pm. Diners were taught to savor caviar in the same way that a chic French woman might. Like Anting, these practices may have turned off potential buyers.

Built-in 2006, it was expected to house 10,000 people, but it remained mostly empty for the better part of the following decade. In 2016, new management took control of the town, and its fortunes soon changed. The company stripped Sky City of the trite cultural experiences, encouraging more traditional Chinese businesses to move in. The cafes and pastry shops remained, but instead of selling baguettes and croissants, they offered taro-infused cakes and other treats that combined Chinese tastes with a French feel. They also rolled back the earlier restrictions on cultural norms, allowing residents to hang their laundry and enclose balconies in glass.

The area still retained some of the quirks meant for it, beyond the replica Eiffel Tower, that is. The town includes a French-language Montessori school, so parents can enroll children in bilingual programs. Residents say they were drawn by uncommon luxuries, like western-style salons and spas. Altogether, the management company’s strategy was simple— instead of placing a French city in China, they created a Chinese city that looks and feels a bit like France.

The results were spectacular. One year after new management took over, the town’s population reached 40,000. Some say this is a bit of an exaggeration, but one thing is clear. People are moving to Sky City. In August of 2018, 663 new housing units went up for sale. Within four minutes, they were sold out. Besides offering a unique environment, the city benefits from its location on the outskirts of town. The average price for an apartment is 14,000 yuan per square meter— or about $200 per square foot— a third of the cost in nearby Hangzhou, and even less compared to Shanghai.

With Sky City as the model, other locales began to adopt similar business models. It remains to be seen whether this will lead to newfound success for these developments, but it might not matter. Demographic indicators show that, before long, the ballooning population surrounding Shanghai will have no choice but to expand into the western-style boroughs.

This was mostly the case with Thames Town, a district modeled after a generic Tudor-style English neighborhood, punctuated by red telephone boxes and an English-style church. Like all British cities, it even has a bronze statue of James Bond, though, unfortunately, it looks a bit like Pierce Brosnan’s Bond.

Like the rest of the developments, the neighborhood was mostly empty for the better part of its first decade. Then, Shanghai’s expanding metropolitan area led to the construction of a new subway line, and a handful of stops were built within Thames Town. Soon afterward, people began to move in. The district was aided by its lack of forced English culture. Chinese disdain for fish and chips meant that few British-style restaurants were ever built there. With Sky City and Thames Town as examples, it seems there may be hope that these former ghost towns can finally attract the residents they need.

Other Examples

While the One City, Nine Towns model is the best-known example of duplitecture, it is far from the only one. Replica cities popped up throughout China around the turn of the millennium. In the northeastern Liaoning province, the port metropolis of Dalian has its own Venetian-style district. With a cost of 5-billion yuan or about 750-million dollars, no expense was spared in the development. 

The district has 4 kilometers of canals and Chinese gondoliers dressed up like their Italian counterparts. Visitors can take a quiet boat ride through the town— but only in the summertime, as the canals freeze over during the cold winters. A small building reminiscent of the Doge’s Palace sits on a replica of Piazza San Marco. Hailed by some as the most audacious of all the duplitecture towns, there’s something of an uncanny valley effect. The Rennaissance-style falls short in this example that looks more like a theme park than Venice. Plus, it’s missing one of Venice’s most notorious characteristics: crowded streets.

Like so many of the replica cities, Venice Town has been hailed as a failure. It stands in contrast to the Central Chinese city of Suzhou, which was built 1500 years ago, and has its own canal system and stone bridges. Unlike the Dalian version, Suzhou developed organically. The design wasn’t meant to copy any other city— it simply fits its location. When Marco Polo visited China in the 13th-century, he declared Suzhou to be the “Venice of the East.” It doesn’t look like Dalian will threaten to take that title any time soon.

Perhaps the most blatant duplitecture in all of China is found outside Huizhou, in the Southern Guangdong province. While the other examples took inspiration from European countries, they tended to build a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster of a city, packing in all of the most cliched attractions. For example, Holland town includes attractions found in Amsterdam, Voorburg, and The Hague. However, near Huizhou, there is an almost 1-to-1 replica of the famed Austrian village Hallstatt. Famous for its lovely townscape, with a church spire piercing the sky, the Austrian version is set alongside a peaceful lake with an alpine backdrop. In China, the mountainous features are swapped out for palm trees and hills. Yes, the design is lovely, but to say it doesn’t fit its location is an understatement.

There are countless other examples throughout China, including replicas of a Spanish town, Manhattan, and Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Few of these boroughs have seen the same success as Sky City and Thames Town. Some function mostly as tourist destinations for Chinese people looking to get a taste of Europe. But, whether locals will ever move into these western districts remains to be seen.

The Future of Duplitecture

Following a series of articles and essays about China’s replica cities, westerners poured on their disdain for this copycat architecture, criticizing their blatant lack of originality. Chinese President Xi Jinping addressed the issue in the following years, urging Chinese architects to avoid “weird” designs, encouraging building sustainable, economic structures with Chinese influence. However, this is easier said than done. Chinese architecture atrophied under Mao’s rule in the 20th-century. There’s no question that dynastic Chinese buildings are unique and distinctly Chinese, but creative urban design was not prioritized in the early decades of the People’s Republic of China. With little experience building original structures, architects have leaned on outside influence.

To an extent, this is how all countries create their own style. People point out that Washington DC is clearly influenced by the layout of Paris, though without carbon copies of iconic structures. Perhaps, after a decade or two of copying, the Chinese architecture industry will find its own voice for original, modern design.

As for the fate of the completed districts, in all likelihood, they will eventually reach an outcome similar to Thames Town. China’s population continues to expand rapidly today, especially in cities, where rural residents move for their greater economic prospects. Chinese people may never be drawn to live in a fake Venice, but the low rents will surely be enough to eventually draw them in. It may be a decade or two before the towns are filled with people, but it seems almost inevitable at this point, especially in areas like Shanghai. We may not see many new duplitecture developments in the coming years, but don’t be surprised if there’s a bustling Dutch town in the middle of China by 2030.

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