Thames Town, Songjiang, Shanghai
I wasn't expecting so much going to Thames Town, still holding ’天都城‘ (Tiandoucheng), Hangzhou's imitation of Paris, high in my memory of weird Chinese urban experiments. But what I found here in the depths of the southwestern Songjiang district impressed me, or baffled me, even more so.
For one, it is successful where Tiandoucheng is not. Part of Tiandoucheng's limited online promotion in the West (through alternative media) is its ghostly emptiness, promising haunting glimpses of a Paris without Parisians, or, more accurately, without anyone at all. That promise is not possible here, for Thames Town on this glorious day was as busy as Xujiahui, and Chinese tourists and Shanghainese alike were strolling around its pastiche pastures, holding in their wallets a fortune saved by not buying a ticket to London.
It is also more subtle in its imitation of a European city, to the extent of presenting to domestic tourists an overly realistic portrayal of a standard Berkshire town. Along with its mock-regency (which we would expect in any representation of London) and mock-mock-tudor (which starts to give us a slightly weirder impression), we are also presented with some of the 'monstrous carbuncles' of postwar redevelopment in its familiar unsightly dark red, complete with turquoise fencing and bridges over interwoven canals. Whilst at home I prefer to pass these by with no comment, and had swept them from my memory when thinking of my home country, the Chinese tourists were lapping it up, with some choosing the awkward brick squares as a romantic spot to get a few more shots for their wedding album. Imagine hundreds of grooms in Harlow town centre lifting their new brides in front of Wetherspoons, unironically. At least there were no Poundlands in sight.
It was fascinating to reassess the often called 'crap towns' which we have grown up surrounded by through the lens of these domestic visitors. It made me think of a Canadian friend of mine spending her days off work walking around the residential neighbourhoods of our University town, in favour of going to nearby London or Windsor, saying she found the buildings here so idiosyncratic and unique.
So what did we do there? There are a lot of coffee shops and restaurants selling bad food (further attention to detail - my pizza tasted of tissue) including a shiny Alice in Wonderland-themed diner-type place where the waitresses wear bunny ears as they serve you spaghetti bolognaise. We had a beer in a tatty beer garden near the central square, where the church is located. You can of course visit this church (whether or not it served the minority Anglican Chinese population I couldn't work out) and inside there are some fun copies of religious art work and stained-glass. Prepare yourself for a fairly blasé congregation. There is a large garden-park area with a statue of Shakespeare confusedly surveying his surroundings, clothed in clambering selfie-takers. There was a very large residential area; roads where the cars were replaced by ambling tourists peaking into suburban British-looking properties far larger than anything I've seen in the French Concession. The majority of them were unoccupied or investor-owned, and the number of estate agents in the town have clearly been competing over Shanghai's ever-increasing middle class populace. Also, the town has a large book shop, which was a bit of a maze inside, and absolutely 'chocka-block', a phrase meaning 'very busy' in what I'm not sure is British vernacular, or just something my Mum says.
The appeal of this place for me was not at all in its intended selling-points. Rather, I love this place because of how uncanny it is, and how experimental such a development is - the likes of which I have come across more in China than in any other country. It displays an enormous gesture of respect towards British culture, oddly enough, with statues of British icons dotted around the vast area, which can be interpreted as weirdly humbling to British people. Imagine if you thought there was demand enough to place a massive monument to the Chinese urban experience in a European suburb (note - Chinatowns are developed and operate in a completely different way to this place, as although they are tourist destinations in their own right, they serve principally to house asian communities and businesses.)
Whether you're interested in having a silly, weird day out, or fancy challenging your perceptions of sociopolitical urban experience, this place would be a worthwhile day out when in Shanghai. In fact, I recommend this place if you are interested in learning a little more about China, in all its 21st Century eccentricity.