When I was in Hangzhou, I visited a failed project of Paris pastiche… made in China!
This is not properly an « urbex » report: the place I present here is not abandoned. Tianducheng is a residential compound located in Hangzhou which was conceived as a miniature copy of Paris. Construction was completed in 2007. Although it was supposed to host 10 000 residents, it has been almost empty for a long time until 2013, while the other « Chinese-style residential compounds » (小区) built by the same real-estate developer around the Eiffel Tower were much more successful. The French-style apartment buildings became famous in many news reports labelling this place as one of China’s most famous « ghost cities » (鬼城). However, nowadays, the French-style neighborhood is partly inhabited and there is some commercial activity so in my opinion, it does not correspond to the « ghost city » concept. Therefore, I consider this place as an unsuccessful project, given how much ambition, money and time were invested on this very daring Chinese pastiche of Paris, which was supposed to become a higer-category neighborhood.
Build as many French (or Western, whatever) symbols as you can…
To give more elements about this place, the outside environment is itself a general reference to Paris. This Eiffel Tower replica looks very close to the real one, although its size is only one third of the real one.
… but also you find many references to France… or to Europe… or to Western culture anyway… It does not seem very clear but in China, prestigious lifestyle means… heavy decoration!
And while a lot of elements were supposed to reproduce the French capital city, they don’t modify the Chinese lifestyle, for instance with total metal protection on the balconies (even on those of upper floors!)…
I must say that during the spring and summer, the commons can look quite good and many residents enjoy it still. And as it is an open space, not gated compound, which is rare in China, even people from the outside come take walks there.
But they are already rotting away…
The entire neighborhood was in a pretty bad shape compared to the original plan of luxurious residential compound. First of all, it was still under-inhabited. The main cause for the failure of this French-style residential neighbourhood was its location, too far away from the center of Hangzhou in the North-east, surrounded by farmlands and a nasty waste treatment center.
Another problem was the inner configuration of the French-style apartments, which were « not adapted to the Chinese way of life »: the apartments were considered too small, without elevators.
The lack of transportation was the most serious issue. The residents explained that a subway line was supposed to be built in the original plan but it was never achieved. Nowadays, it takes more than one hour to reach the city centre by public bus. Other important equipments (like a hospital, public schools) also were not seem available. As a consequence, many parts of the neighbourhood were still empty, like these offices.
Moreover, the lower part of most buildings was empty of shops. The rents were too high for such a inconvenient location.
The third reason for the failure of the neighborhood is its poor maintenance by the management company. It has been less than 10 years that this neighborhood exists and already the decorative and architectural elements of the buildings are broken or rusting away…
The abandoned Eiffel Tower replica
The Eiffel Tower replica, already a bit overgrown by wild grass, was rusting away, and appeared very dangerous to climb1.
An extremely large park full of copies
Far from being a touristic hot spot like Thames Town in Shanghai’s Songjiang, the only stable economic activity in Tianducheng was and is still the wedding photography tradition for Chinese couples who could not afford a trip to the real Paris…
Indeed, the romantic scenes photographed in Tianducheng park can actually look good even if the scuptures are not in the best material.
The park remains a nice place for the Tianducheng residents who have a free pass all year. But some of the buildings were disused for a while…
I noticed that the couples taking pictures in front of the fake Eiffel Tower seemed a little pathetic because the square was not really good looking at the time and they had to walk in the mud…
The climax of kitsch: Tianducheng hotel or the archetype of « romantic themed spaces in China
“So, far from critiquing such establishments for their patent artificiality, we ought to recognize that the love hotel ‘isn’t the mimicry of a thing; it’s a thing’. Everything in the environment is self-consciously fabricated and obviously fake. The themed spaces of love hotels are not meant to be something else but exist simply to connote it, to allude to it so that the essence of such far-off (or far-out) places might attach itself to patrons, corporeally, for the duration of their short stay.”
Derek Foster, « Love Hotels: Sex and the Rhetoric of Themed Spaces », in Scott A. Lukas (ed.), The Themed Space: Locating Culture, Nation, and Self, Lanham, Lexington, 2007, p. 170.
Just like the « love hotels » in Japan, Tianducheng hotel exhibits a multiplicity of luxury symbols of what is understood as the main symbols of French historical heritage. There are so many elements in such a small space: from Louis the XIV and Napoleon to Ancient Roman and Greek sculptures while showing renaissance and even impressionist paintings, what an addition of references! Not only is the style of these decorative objects heavy but also they all look particularly cheap, which makes the whole environment very… kitsch! The entrance hall for instance, is occupied by so many paintings, sculptures and decorations from the floor to the ceiling. But the artificiality of the themed space should not make you think that the practice of this hotel is actually artificial. Many Chinese couples appreciate this kind of « romantic » environment for the celebration of their wedding.
And, just like the rest of the Tianducheng neighborhood, it was only full of… staff members.
Unfinished development… which might turn out ok!
I found out something even more surprising: the project is not completed, and is supposed to bring, among other ambitious buildings, a department store surrounding the fake Eiffel Tower… When you know that already a few simple shops could not be rented, how will they bring international luxury brands to this remote area? That is the mystery of absurd urban planning in China…
However, the G20 organized in Hangzhou in September 2016 had a certain impact on Tianducheng. The dirty walls in the residential area were painted in white. The Eiffel Tower area was rehabilitated and a large square was built underneath. In addition to the G20-related acceleration of renovation in Tianducheng, Jamie xx’s recent video by Romain Gavras was shot there. According to my last visit, the empty fields turned into a public park which all the nearby residents appreciate greatly. Finally, in three years, a subway station will open in the neighbourhood and the quality of life the residents will for sure improve in the end.
- This is why this post is not in the « urbex » section, I decided not to try it… I did not trust the quality of the structure. ↩