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“Theme Park” Architecture in China

16 May, 2007

Venice in ChinaOne of my favourite blogs is BoingBoing, not the least because a lot of the posts tickle my anthropological funnybone. A good example is a recent post on new architectural trends in China, where the emergent middle-class is being tempted to live in simulacra of historical Western cityscapes.

In Nanjing, there are Balinese retreats and Italian villas. In the southeastern city of Hangzhou, there are Venice and Zurich. In downtown Beijing, everything is about Manhattan, with Soho, Central Park and Park Avenue.

Seems that there is quite a bit of interest in producing replica of iconic structures from a usually Western “elsewhere”. Another BoingBoing article reports about the Shijingshan Amusement Park in Beijing, described as “basically a weird, Chinese clone of Disneyland”.

Perhaps more interesting than the phenomenon itself is why stories like this are so ticklish for people like me. What should “we Westerners” have a monopoly on consuming the exotic other? Various kinds of exotica have long been decorating Western homes, both inside and out, for a long time now. An example that springs to mind is the not uncommon practice of a few decades hence of placing concrete Aborigines, like indigenous garden gnomes, in front gardens. Can’t do that anymore though; the consumption of exotica these days must be done with requisite postmodern irony. And maybe that’s what’s so strange about these Chinese consumption patterns: they’re just dripping with pomo simulation, but without the ironic self-parodic attitude you’d expect in the West. Or maybe it’s the strange thrill of seeing changing power relations at work. Maybe it’s not so much the weirdness of the copying, but the fact that it’s being done to “us”. “We Westerners”, not the least anthropologists, have been accustomed to representing the other. So its strange to find “our” forms as exotic consumer items.

I’m just guessing here, of course. Good ethnographic work would provide some sense of why the Chinese middle class seem to be enjoying these kinds of consumption. Perhaps our resident China expert, Third Tone Devil, has something to say about this?

10 Comments leave one →
  1. 17 May, 2007 6:50 pm

    The same process of Westerners becoming the object of other peoples gaze, especially with regards to themeparks and architecture was described a few years ago by Jo Hendry in a nice book called The Orient Strikes Back : A Global View Of Cultural Display (Berg, 2000). Yet the recreation of medieval German town squares and Spanish Flamenco bars in Japanese, Chinese and Indonesian themeparks didn’t directly affect the way Germans or Spaniards saw themselves. Yet with booming Asian outbound tourism to Europe and other places this is increasingly changing. In Germany (as in Switzerland and Britain with regards to Indian Bollywood tourism) we now see the emergence of this “other gaze” in our midst, as whole European regions market themselves according to the stereotypes the new tourists hold of them. Today I read an article in the Süddeutsche Zeitung about the efforts of the “German Fairy-Tale Route” from Bremen to Hanau to reach out to Chinese tourists. The main attraction is the Rattenfänger, the Pied Piper of Hameln. The guy hired by the town to play the pied piper has a co-operation with a Cantonese TV channel and flies over regularly to tell his story to Chinese children – who hopefully press their parents to visit the German town. In the interview, the pied pieper said that while European tourists often criticise German cities with their mix of 16. Century architecture interspersed with 1970s+ shopping centers, Chinese tourists especially liked this feature as it reminded them of their own cityscapes where the very new stands next to the very old.

    Your entry also reminded me of another trend, which is Vietnamese migrants in Germany returning to Vietnam and building very German houses there. During a project about Vietnamese migrants in Berlin I recently came across a Vietnamese man who held a very poorly paid job (3 Euro per hour) in an Asia-snack bar. In East Berlin he lived in a dilapidated high rise, yet he had cheaply bought plots of land in Hanoi and build 2 posh villas, which looked completely German, i.e. they not only had typical German roof tilling and wine cellars, but also a very Berlinish ground plan where the wooden steps ran through a separate staircase. What striked me was not only the architectural cross-over aspect, but also the fact that seen from a German perspective this man was a classic example of a miserable migrant, whereas from a transnational angle, he appeared to be better off than many Germans.

  2. 18 May, 2007 1:08 pm

    That’s very interesting Joana. I’ll have to check out the book by Hendry. Your comments reminded me of one fascinating aspect of the original article. Apparently some of the Chinese artisans are becoming so good at copying European architecture that they’re actually being employed in Europe to work on the “real thing”!

  3. 26 May, 2007 12:42 am

    In Egypt there is a huge phenomenon of big desert housing compounds being built to woo the next generation of elites away from the crowded centers of Cairo (with the problem of all those darned lower classes that you have to mix with on a daily basis!). Petra Kuppinger has written about this in “Exclusive Greenery: new gated communities in Cairo” (City & Society 16/2:35-61). Some of these have Arabic names, but most of them have English names or a combination of English and Arabic (one is in French: “Belle Ville”). One name references an exotic specified other, “Beverly Hills.” But the rest evoke fantasy realms. There’s “Dreamland” (by far the biggest and most successful development), “Paradise Park,” “Spring Valley,” “Al Yasmein Green Land,” and, my favorite, “Moon Land.” The names make me laugh, and all the more so when I remember the housing development in which I grew up in Northern Virginia, in the suburbs of the nation’s capital: “Sugarland Run.”

  4. Third Tone Devil permalink
    28 May, 2007 3:51 pm

    Sorry for neglecting my duties as resident China expert. Well, back in the early 1920s there were these towers built in the villages in Kaiping County, near Hong Kong, for emigrants who were working in the West; apparently, they sent home picture postcards and asked architects to build houses like those on the cards. But because of banditry, these eclectic but largely neoclassical/neobaroque houses were constructed on steel-reinforced concrete postaments, which make them look a bit like silos on the bottom. I think Jovan may have some photos of them in his image bank. (if so, can you link them please?) They are now World Heritage!

    As to what Westerners dislike about Western-themed Chinese parks: for one, I think it is the lack of ironic distance, the lack of an attempt to clearly separate “genuine heritage” from obvious simulacra., which offends Western tourist sensibilities. Often, however, it is the poor quality of reproductions. I mean, it’s okay to have Oceanian artifacts on your wall, but if we had concrete totem poles with the paint peeling off inside council estates, that would meet with derision. (Though, I have to say, the dancing cranes at Sydney’s Circular Quay are close to that.) One of the British media stories dealing with the “English town” near Shanghai apparently had to do with an English publican’s objection that the pub in “English town” was an exact copy of hers, including the name, and nobody had asked her. At the same time, if one reads Orwell’s Coming Up For Air for instance, one realizes that the English “country pub” that we now regard as someting entirely natural (at least I do) was an invention of the 1930s, when motor tourism began, and Orwell makes fun of it.

  5. 18 February, 2008 5:50 am

    Hi what a nice read! I am doing my PhD on postmodernism in China and have the ‘European city’ near to Shanghai as a case-study.

    My approach is a Marxian one, which focuses on postmodernity as a result of capitalism’s expansive mechanism. Maybe you could contact me and we could dicuss a bit over email?



  6. 18 February, 2008 11:40 pm

    Thanks Marijn. Sounds like an interesting topic for the PhD. I wonder how translatable the concept of postmodernism is in the Chinese context. Do you problematise this at all in your research? Sounds like your taking the lead from Jameson in your thesis, so the emphasis would probably be more on capitalism as an autonomous system with its own logic, yes?

    If you’d like to chat further my email address is jovan.maud [at] I must warn you though that I post about a lot of things I find interesting here, but I don’t necessarily have a great deal of expertise in the area. You could probably accuse me of being somewhat ‘postmodern’ in my approach, although I’d hate to think of myself as a product of some expansive mechanism!

  7. 18 February, 2008 11:41 pm

    I must also say that I love the way these old conversations can be picked up again after months and months and revitalised by a new comment. This is a less obvious virtue of the blogging format, which I’m relatively new to, that I am coming to appreciate.

  8. Marijn permalink
    20 February, 2008 6:53 am

    cheers for your response and yes I will follow Jameson to some degree (nice that you mention him :)). Let me drop you a personal message now.

  9. 21 February, 2008 3:19 pm

    Marijn, one of the more interesting contributions to the postmodernism in China discussion is the book Liumang de shengyan (The banquet of hooligans). Are you familiar with it? I posted a long entry about it on my other blog,

    It would be interesting to hear more about your PhD project. Do you want to drop me a line on pal.nyiri [at] ?

  10. Sumiti Sah permalink
    25 September, 2009 1:10 am

    Hi what a nice read! I am doing my bachelors in architecture from INDIA.
    I am in 5th year.My thesis topic is amusement park.So please help me regarding this topic by providing the data or suggestions for the same.
    Thank you

    Sumiti Sah

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