China Gets Its Own Slice of English Countryside Shanghai's planners are resettling 500,000 people in new suburban towns, each built in a foreign style. In the second report on Shanghai's development, we visit Thames Town, which brings an English country town to China.
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China Gets Its Own Slice of English Countryside

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China Gets Its Own Slice of English Countryside

China Gets Its Own Slice of English Countryside

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City planners in Shanghai are carrying out an ambitious scheme to relieve population pressure. They're resettling half a million people in nine new towns in the suburbs. Each is built in a distinctive style, including an Italian town with canals, based on Venice; and a German town, designed by Alpert Speir -he's the son of Hitler's favorite architect.

As we continue our weeklong series on Shanghai, NPR's Louisa Lim reports on one of these new settlements, Thames Town.

LOUISA LIM: I'm standing on a cobbled street and I'm looking at a half-timbered Tudor house. I've just walked past some Edwardian townhouses, and just up the road there's a market square complete with a covered market building, with a clock tower and a weathervane on top. In fact, I feel like I'm standing in an English country town. And that was the whole idea of Thames Town, to recreate Middle England in the Middle kingdom.

Mr. PAUL RICE (Lead Architect, Thames Town): The client wanted an English town. They wanted a town that functions on its own that had schools and shops, houses, recreational.

LIM: Paul Rice, who works for the British company, Atkins, was the lead architect for Thames Town.

Mr. RICE: Shanghai does have a tradition of an English, and a French, and a German architecture in the concession settlements of central Shanghai. So recreating that, again, on the outskirts of Shanghai - might seem strange to you and I, as foreigners - but actually our client didn't see it as that. They saw it as, well, we've already had this in Shanghai. We're recreating it here, you know, to give the same kind of character of space in architecture to a new settlement in the outskirts of Shanghai.

LIM: But when it comes down to it, in China, it's always about the bottom-line. Developer James Ho.

Mr. JAMES HO (Developer): We considered the main factor is the commercial consideration. You know, the beautiful buildings is always welcome by customers.

LIM: So you think it makes money, having an English town.

Mr. HO: Yes. You know, yeah, for the buildings' style is different from others, it will have its own market. It will be easy to make money, to have profit. Yes.

(Soundbite of conversations)

LIM: There's even a church, complete with stained glass windows and a towering spire. That's mainly being used now as a backdrop for wedding photographs, and you might be able to hear the wedding photographer barking out directions in the background. And it's here that I met Yang Jinghui and Zi Haiying, who are at present leaping into each other's arms for a wedding photograph on the lawn in front of Thames Town Church.

Ms. ZI HAIYING (Bride at Thames Church): (Speaking Foreign Language)

Mr. YANG JINGHUI (Groom at Thames Church): (Speaking Foreign Language)

(Soundbite of laughter)

LIM: They say they love it here. Although they have good jobs working for large Western companies, they don't think they'll ever be able to afford to live here.

Mrs. LU: (Resident, Thames Town): (Speaking Foreign Language)

LIM: Mrs. Lu, opening the remote-controlled garage door of her quarter of a million dollar villa, is one of the lucky few.

Mrs. LU: (Speaking Foreign Language)

LIM: I like it because it's like a foreign country here, she says. And, in fact, some have denounced the satellite town's scheme as a form of self-colonization. Another criticism is that Thames Town is yet another example of China's copycat fever, a pale imitation at best.

I'm now standing in front of two buildings that have sparked some controversy. There's a square-ish white three-story building with a sign saying Rock Point Inn. It's next door to a smaller white building called Cobb Gate Fish Bar. Now, the problem is that these establishments do actually exist, and they've been copied, wholesale, from the British town of Lyme Regis. And, of course, the discovery here in Thames Town, Shanghai sparked near hysteria in the British press, which carried many interviews with the pub landlady of the Rock Point Inn; colorfully titled things like Chinese Takeaway and Shanghaied: How the Chinese Stole My Chippy.

But Paul Rice, from the architect Atkins, denies any wrongdoing.

Mr. RICE: The names of the buildings, actually the clients saw that as something rather decorative. And most of the buildings in Songjiang at the moment are empty. When we asked the client about this, they said, well, when people move in and it becomes a shoe shop or it becomes a clothing shop, they'll change the name.

(Soundbite of music and firecrackers)

LIM: But even as Thames Town is declared open in a lavish ceremony, it seems far from achieving its original objective. With its empty streets and un-rented shops, it's more like a ghost town. And with homes priced out of the market for many, Shanghai's plans for its satellite towns are placing gimmicky foreign settlements above the real needs of its own people.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Thames Town, Shanghai.

MONTAGNE: And you can take a stroll through the brick lanes of Thames Town at Our series on Shanghai continues tomorrow, where skyscrapers and malls spring up, residents face eviction.

Unidentified Woman: (Through Translator) Everyday I see my apartment and I want to cry. I lived there for decades. My sons were born there. I feel so sad.

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