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Since the turn of the millennium, China’s rapid entrance onto the world economic stage has seen the most populous nation on earth pour unprecedented levels of public funds into its construction industries. Indeed, even during the onset of the financial crisis of 2007, Chinese spending on construction sat at over $1 trillion per month.
So, what has the most populous nation on Earth actually been building with its colossal construction budget? As strange as it may sound, the answer might be somewhat closer to Europe than you think.
The port city of Dalian, situated in China’s Liaoning province, is home to almost seven million people. Like many metropolitan hubs of the developed world, Dalian boasts the usual array of parks, universities, shopping centres, museums and sites of historical interest. However, unlike other cities, it’s also host to an $800 million replica of Venice – complete with renaissance-style European architecture, gondolas, and four kilometres’ worth of canals. A resident of Dalian could well spend their Saturday afternoon lazily paddling along the mock Venetian waterways, chatting idly with gondoliers in traditional Venetian costume, or eating shrimps and polenta under a presumably cloudy canopy.
The Chinese fascination with European culture and architecture has given rise to a multitude of projects like Dalian’s mini-Venice. If you were to take a quick nineteen-mile journey from central Shanghai, for example, you would arrive at the aptly named Thames Town – an uncanny replica of the English market towns that border our own nation’s capital. Complete with cobbled streets, Victorian terraces, red telephone boxes and even a statue of Pierce Brosnan’s James Bond, Thames Town is another example of the often bizarre ingenuity that defines the China of the twenty-first century.
Other European towns that Chinese constructors have mimicked include Paris, complete with a miniature Eiffel Tower and tree-lined avenues, and Anting German Town which, in a stroke bordering on satire, is home to one of the centres of the Chinese automotive industry. As you can imagine, Anting flaunts the architectural styles that proliferated across Germany in the post-reunification years: bright colours, low-rise flats and an effective blend of personal and pedestrian spaces. Statues of Goethe and Schiller – common fixtures of many small towns along the Rhine – stand largely unnoticed by the 52,000 Chinese inhabitants.
Almost wholly devoid of the plate glass and energy efficient cladding that is fast becoming the norm in contemporary Western construction efforts, Chinese ‘copycat cities’ cannot help but invoke the oft-quoted phrase, “ Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”
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