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Many people dream of visiting Paris. Others dream of Venice. People in China now have the opportunity to visit both places, in the same afternoon, without even going very far. Developers in China have been building residential communities that mimic famous European cities and villages, right down to the roof tiles. Scores of those communities exist now, and they are the subject of a new book. NPR's Frank Langfitt recently took the grand tour of copycat communities in coastal China's Zhejiang province.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: So, I'm standing in a field, kind of on the edge of a swamp, and I'm looking up at a replica of the Eiffel Tower. It's more than 300 feet tall, and it's part of a development here that's supposed to be kind of a mock-up of Paris. And beyond the Eiffel Tower, you can see this very authentic-looking French architecture, buildings with Mansard roofs. They have little chimneys on top, balconies. But the one thing is there are not that many people here.
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LANGFITT: Xie Tingjian brought his business here three years ago. He sells clothing on the Internet. Xie's office looks out over the main thoroughfare, which is lined with trees, street lamps and dry fountains.
XIE TINGJIAN: (Through Translator) This place is called the Champs-Elysees. We are at number 64 Champs-Elysees. It's quiet. No one is here.
LANGFITT: This faux Paris, called Sky City, was built in 2006. But it never attracted the businesses or people developers hoped for. Xie - who wears a T-shirt that reads: when you have nothing to lose - says he chose the community because of the cheap rent and the aesthetics.
TINGJIAN: (Through Translator) It's very special, because all the architecture is in the European style, not like average Chinese residential complexes. It's very beautiful.
LANGFITT: One reason more people don't live here is the location. It's a 40-minute drive from downtown Hangzhou, the nearest big city. The community also has a rundown, creepy feel. There are fake storefronts for a non-existent coffee shop and an advertising office. Here's a sign in front of the advertising office. It says: Advertising desing is visual communication art and desing it value. It's all misspelled. It's actually indecipherable, and it seems as though whoever wrote this figured that most people here can't read English, so it doesn't matter.
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LANGFITT: There's even a truck that drives around the Eiffel Tower spraying water on the road and playing this.
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LANGFITT: What were the developers thinking? They won't say. When I went to their offices, I was told the bosses were busy in meetings, which is Chinese for I don't want to talk to you.
Yan Xuanren is a senior agent at the local Century 21 office. He says the development isn't the ghost town it seems, and that most of the apartments are occupied.
YAN XUANREN: (Through Translator) The original plan was very good, building this into a residential area, and when people started flowing here, building a commercial district. The developers thought a subway line was coming to front of the complex.
LANGFITT: But a subway never materialized, nor did the rich people developers expected. Most of the villas - some priced at more than $800,000 - still sit empty.
TONG MING: As an architect, I feel it's very strange.
LANGFITT: Tong Ming is a professor of Urban Planning at Tongji University in Shanghai.
MING: For our profession, it's really shameful to copy something from somewhere else.
LANGFITT: Tong says developers began building copy communities as Chinese cities and home ownership took off. They didn't know what consumers wanted, and needed to lure them in.
MING: Most developers, they are not so confident in terms of the product, the market. So the most guaranteed way is to try provide them the most familiar things.
LANGFITT: Of course, there is a long history of borrowing in architecture. Consider all those Corinthian columns on the Capitol in Washington, D.C. Tong says the problem with China's copy communities is they're just knock-offs. There's no innovation.
BIANCA BOSKER: I'm Bianca Bosker, and I'm the author of "Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China."
LANGFITT: Bosker spent several years researching copy communities and speaking to residents. She says some see higher-end developments as a way to show off their new wealth and taste.
BOSKER: They're selling not only this Western knock-off home, but I think they're also selling the dream of a better life. There's a sense that you can be a bureaucrat. You can be an entrepreneur, and you can live like a king.
LANGFITT: As recently as the 1990s, most urban Chinese didn't even own their own homes. The government assigned them musty, Communist work-unit apartments. Today's copy communities are light-years from those days. Again, Bianca Bosker.
BOSKER: A lot of people dismiss them. They think that they're ugly. They think they're tacky. But I think that what these communities are testament to is the incredible amount of personal choice that Chinese consumers have.
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LANGFITT: About an hour's drive from fake Paris, about a dozen retired women are dancing outside to the 1990s hit, "Moving On Up." This isn't unusual. In China, retired women dance all the time for exercise, except this group is on the edge of a huge replica of St. Mark's Square in Venice.
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LANGFITT: This is Venice Water Town, and it's filled with Italian-style villas with balconies and ochre-colored walls. The dance leader introduces herself as Teacher Xie. She came here for the clean air and the Western architecture, which she associates with sophistication.
TEACHER XIE: (Foreign language spoken)
LANGFITT: When I was working as a teacher, I thought Western teaching methods were more advanced, she says. So, she bought a Western-style home.
XIE: (Through Translator) When we renovated our apartment, it was entirely in European style. The furniture we bought was European. The lights and other fixtures are close to that. And all the paintings on the walls are oil paintings.
LANGFITT: Fake Venice - which is near a subway stop - is much more successful than Fake Paris. In the evenings, people sit on park benches overlooking the canals and chat by the light of street lamps. BMWs, Porsches and Volvos line the road. There are surreal touches. Part of St. Mark's Square has been turned into a basketball court. And the Doge's palace doubles as a dorm for workers at a nearby amusement park. None of this seems to bother the locals. Liu Shengdi, a fellow dancer, recalls the first time she saw Venice Water Town.
LIU SHENGDI: (Foreign language spoken)
LANGFITT: Wow. I said this complex is too beautiful, she says. It totally looks like a painting. How were they able to design such beautiful houses?
Tong Ming, the urban planning professor, thinks copycat communities may be just a phase. As more Chinese travel abroad, the novelty of foreign architecture is wearing off. And, Tong hopes, in the future, more developers will come up with more original ideas.
Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai.
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