article-imageThames Town Chapel (photograph by Bianca Bosker/Original Copies)

The canals of Venice, the monuments of Paris, the skyscrapers of New York, even the pubs of London can all be found in China. The replicas are part of a trend of copycat architecture that has brought the architecture of the rest of the world, particularly of Europe and the United States, into the new developments of China’s growing cities. In a book released earlier this year called Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China by Bianca Bosker, these cloned communities are examined both in their historical and cultural context.

There’s Thames Town where a statue of Churchill looms before guards dressed in uniforms inspired by the Queen’s foot guard; New Amsterdam in Shenyang where a copy of the Hague’s Peace Palace is alongside a traditional ship; and New York, New York, where a dwarfed Chrysler Building cuts above a pseudo-Times Square. Bianca Bosker told us more about this replica architecture and her first-hand experience exploring the mirror cities.

How did you first encounter the copy towns of China? 

During a visit to China a number of years ago, I was intrigued by billboard after billboard advertising homes in elaborate fantasy-villes with names like “Venice Gardens,” “Majesty Manor,” and “Top Aristocrat.” It was especially jarring to see these ads for old-fashioned-looking homes — with façades and ornamentation seemingly borrowed from the days of dukes and duchesses  — juxtaposed with the cutting-edge, modern architecture going up in China’s cities. Why the obsession with chateaux and mock-villas, I wondered? 

The “duplitecture” developments seemed too strange to be real, and, curious to see how the illustrated Euro-towns pictured on the ads compared to the real thing, I set out to see them for myself. It turned out in most cases, the copies were even more bizarre in person than the over-the-top billboards had let on. That led to several years of research that took me into theme-towns all across China, and served as the basis for my book on China’s duplitecture movement, Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China. 

article-imageLuodian Town, a Scandinavian-themed town (photograph by Bianca Bosker/Original Copies)

Is there an aspect of Chinese culture that you think most influences the amount of copies there are, not just in towns, but in other aspects of life as well? 

As I discuss in my book, China, at least traditionally, has viewed copying with far greater nuance and tolerance than we have in the West. This perspective has helped create a copy-friendly climate where knockoff White Houses and Monet-manufacturing centers can flourish.

article-imageSan Carlos (photograph by Bianca Bosker/Original Copies)

San Carlos (photograph by Bianca Bosker/Original Copies)

In the United States, we have a total aversion to copying: replication of any kind sets off a panic attack and copycats are seen as cheats. Yet in China, where there’s a long tradition of replicating everything from architecture and artwork to natural landscapes, copying isn’t viewed with such hostility. Traditionally, people saw there as being many distinct types of copies, each with certain merits and purposes. Being able to copy well could actually be a sign of one’s skill or ability — a good copier would be celebrated as a talent, not a thief, and a well-done replica could be a testament to achievement. 

China’s current government leaders are also strategically encouraging imitation across a number of fields as a way for China to gain a competitive edge. In 2001, for example, the Shanghai government decided to hire ten foreign firms to build ten themed cities around Shanghai, each built in the style of a different European country. The officials in charge of the project noted they hoped working with foreign architects would help domestic designers come away with a sharper skill-set  they could apply to helping the nation grow and urbanize. This is mimicry as a path to mastery.

article-imageLuodian Town, a Scandinavian-themed town (photograph by Bianca Bosker/Original Copies)

article-imageAnother view of Luodian Town (photograph by Bianca Bosker/Original Copies)

The range of what is copied is really impressive, from Paris to Austrian towns. Can you give us some insight into how these copy towns are designed and built? Are they more than just quick copies? 

There are copycat communities where the Western flourishes — a column here, a statue there — are slapped on like icing on a birthday cake. But in many cases, the Chinese developers will actually go to extraordinary lengths to be sure their copies are as faithful to the originals as possible. 

article-imageSan Carlos (photograph by Bianca Bosker/Original Copies)

Chinese architects will sometimes travel abroad to study the town they plan to copy firsthand, on location, to be sure their replica is just right (interestingly, many developers I spoke with said they’d found that Chinese architects were far better able to create the look and feel of a European town than their Western counterparts — they apparently knew what elements would scream “French” or “Spanish” to potential Chinese homebuyers).

Not only are the façades of these copycat homes designed to have a Western look, but their floor plans will borrow from abroad, the layout of the town will frequently replicate the original’s, and major landmarks will be recreated to make the whole fantasy more believable. The townhouses in Hangzhou’s Venice Water Town look out over canals crisscrossed by gondoliers’ boats, and the residences are just a few steps away from a copy of Saint Mark’s Square. Bits of European culture are often imported along with the architecture to make the whole replica even more complete. The British-themed Thames Town, for example, boasts  a cathedral, statues of British historical figures, streets with English names and even pubs and cafes serving typical British fare.

article-imageHolland Village (photograph by Bianca Bosker/Original Copies)

What’s the experience of visiting or living in a place that is a reflection of another place?

It’s crucial to note that many of these duplitecture developments are not theme parks, but neighborhoods where people live out their lives, raise their kids, and grow old. The homeowners who’ve opted to live in a replica Paris or Palm Beach most often say that they’ve embraced the Western style because it helps them show off their success and sophistication. “Living here means we have a social identity at the upper level,” one resident explained to me.  

I think it’s still too early to say for certain how a generation of Chinese raised in Baroque townhouses or Ye Old English surroundings might be shaped by these themed surroundings. Will these landscapes help inculcate foreign cultural traditions? Might they promote an interest in emigrating abroad, or rather lessen the desire to leave China? Could homeowners embrace more Western political systems along with their Beaux Art homes or Mediterranean villas? We’ll see, and I’m fascinated to see how this evolves. 

I’d highly recommend going to explore these places, and people can find numerous examples of these copycat landscapes throughout China listed in my book. The whole experience of touring China’s duplitecture developments, to borrow from the motto of one Italian-themed community, is “out of expectation within common sense.”  

Here are five of these “copy towns” that Bianca Bosker shared with us:


article-imageThames Town (photograph by Bianca Bosker/Original Copies)

Real estate agencies in Shanghai’s British-inspired Thames Town lure potential buyers with the promise that they can “Dream of England. Live in Thames Town,” and its glossy brochures are written for those who consider themselves “fond of steeple chasing, Premier League soccer, and the Beatles.”  The property, which welcomes day trippers, but is also home to full-time residents, is a mix of Gothic, Tudor, and half-timbered buildings, and includes a brick-for-brick replica of Bristol’s gothic Christ Church cathedral.

Thames Town (photograph by Bianca Bosker/Original Copies)

It was built as part of the Shanghai government’s “One City, Nine Towns” plan, a massive urban planning project that set out to build ten satellite towns around Shanghai, each in the architectural style of a different European nation. Thames Town has a small commercial area with coffee shops, a pub, and various shops, along with neighborhoods surrounding it. The winding streets of the town are patrolled by security guards wearing uniforms inspired by those of
 the Queen’s Foot Guard, and the town is a favorite for Chinese couples seeking wedding portraits. 

article-imageThames Town (photograph by Bianca Bosker/Original Copies)


article-imageVenice Water Town (photograph by Bianca Bosker/Original Copies)

Hangzhou’s carbon-copy of Venice offers Italian-inspired, la dolce vita living in townhouses overlooking a network of manmade canals on which gondoliers navigate gondolas under stone bridges. The crown jewels of Venice Water Town are the town’s replicas of Venice’s most iconic landmarks: the ornately-tiled Doge’s Palace and the bell tower of Saint Mark’s Basilica.  

article-imageVenice Water Town (photograph by Bianca Bosker/Original Copies)


article-imagePalais de Fortune (photograph by Bianca Bosker/Original Copies)

The gargantuan, luxurious villas at Beijing’s Palais de Fortune development have been built with materials imported from France and have each been named after prized symbols of French culture, from “Louvre” to “Versailles.”

The enormous homes, each between 1,400 and 1,600 square meters in size, offer a seemingly endless number of bedrooms, balconies and lounging areas, including multiple kitchens, and are decorated to the hilt inside and out with chandeliers and cherubs. Like many of China’s copycat developments, security is extremely tight: visitors have to pass through multiple check points, each manned by a team of security guards who patrol the gold-tipped wrought-iron fence.

article-imagePalais de Fortune (photograph by Bianca Bosker/Original Copies)


article-imageTianducheng, with French-themed architecture (photograph by Bianca Bosker/Original Copies)

In the suburbs of Hangzhou, China, the greatest hits of Parisian architecture have been recreated in a sprawling residential development complete with churches and carriage rides. While the self-described “Oriental Paris” boasts detailed replicas of Parisian apartment buildings and its very own Champs Elysées Square, it’s a strange hodgepodge of French landmarks.

When I visited, I found a one-third scale replica of the Eiffel Tower just a little ways away from a copy of a fountain from the Palace of Versailles, which was in turn not far from an amphitheater modeled after the famous Arena of Nîmes, as well as a miniature medieval-style French town.

article-imageTianducheng Hilltop castle (photograph by Bianca Bosker/Original Copies)

Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China (2013) by Bianca Bosker is available from University of Hawai’i Press.