Theoretically, any country that harbors a substantial amount of foreign immigrants is going to develop what sociologists call ethnic enclaves, or physical locales in which the ethnic and cultural background remains distinct when compared to the receiving society. In the US, the most notable examples of ethnic enclaves reside in San Francisco and New York City, these of course being Chinatown in the former, and many more, albeit smaller, ethnic concentrations in the latter (Koreatown, Chinatown, Little Italy, etc.). Normally, this infusion of language, architecture, and culture is initiated by the immigrating party, and only after an ethnic presence has been established do the native areas around the enclave begin to experience the diffusion of this new cultural diversity.
The prevailing idea between academics has been that an urban area cannot force ethnic enclaves to form, but rather they have to originate naturally through consistent immigration. However, in China, a group of urban planners decided to come at the idea of ethnic enclaves from a different angle. Starting in the early 2000’s, local governments in China built several towns, bordering major metropolitan areas, that attempted to recreate ethnic enclaves without an immigrating presence attached to them.
Thames Town, named after the famed river that runs through London, is a small urban area located about 19 km (30 mi) from Shanghai, which attempted to recreate the classic British market town style, while not having any British residents. The town, built for a population of around 10,000, has cobbled streets, Victorian-style architecture, and quaint corner shops. It even has a fish and chips shop that is modeled after a real British pub in southern England. The one thing the town lacks is people. When construction was finished in 2006, the homes, most of which are single-family housing, sold quickly. The properties were bought mostly by wealthy residents from surrounding metropolises who bought them mainly as investments or as second-homes. This caused home prices to rise to a level that choked off anyone from the working class from buying property there. These two factors led to very few people actually taking up permanent residence in Thames Town. Due to the meager population, many now describe the area as a very pretty ghost town, most notable for being a popular place to get wedding photos taken.
On the outset, Thames Town may seem like an outlier, a sort of failed experiment, but where Thames Town “failed” China sees more opportunity. Even in the wake of Thames Town’s abandonment, planners in China are planning to build another English-style town near Beijing. Even more bizarre is the fact that in Hangzhou, China there is a town called Tianducheng, which is like Thames Town, but with Paris swapped out for London. It even has a 300 foot-high Eiffel Tower. Much like Thames Town, it is uninhabited, and only functions now as a quirky backdrop for a day trip. Couple this with a Venice clone also in Hangzhou, and a very strange pattern presents itself.
Why, you may ask, did China feel compelled to build these towns, and continue to build them in the face of apparent failure? China, probably more so than any other country in the developing world, is rapidly developing a broad upper class and a burgeoning middle class, something nations like China have never seen before. This growth has been accompanied by a rise in money spent on recreation and travel. Something like Thames Town can have an appeal to a working-class Chinese family who is making more money, but not enough yet to travel. That in conjunction with a sort of Western-fascination that swept over urban China in the wake of the Cold War are the most likely reasons these towns came to be. Much like in many growing Asian economies, the strangely extravagant urban designs lie in stark contrast to the poverty that pervades much of the surrounding area.
Fabricated ethnic enclaves are by no means an alien concept. Things like Thames Town have been built before, and one might argue that they functions more as a theme park than an actual functional town. What the building of these towns does highlight is China’s extravagant spending when it comes to courting its newly formed middle and upper class, which may be a trend we continue to see as countries in the developing world being to modernize.
– Ben Kessler