by Corrie McCloy
Out of the city centre rises the sensual curve, exquisite metalwork, and sharp spire of the Eiffel Tower. Below it stretches a broad promenade lined with white neo-classical buildings. You could stand on one of the balconies and look across tall trees towards Renaissance monuments and fountains.
However, this Eiffel Tower is only a third the height of the original. The Parisian style architecture only covers some twelve square miles before it is superseded by twenty-story modern apartment buildings. This isn’t Paris at all: it’s Hangzhou, a city in the southwest corner of China.
This replica of Paris was built in 2007, during China’s housing boom. Although not a one-to-one representation, the housing development evokes the Paris of writers like Victor Hugo, philosophers like Voltaire, and painters like Claude Monet or Paul Gaugin. During the late 19th century, Paris represented the peak of European civilization. It was a mecca of the arts. Although today it is displaced as an international hub, the city still shimmers with inexhaustible charm. “Paris is always a good idea,” Audrey Hepburn famously said, a quotation repeated and stamped on images of Paris circulating the internet.
Perhaps it is not so surprising that developers have evoked Parisian architecture thousands of miles away from the city of lights. Of course, it is common for architects and designers to incorporate the details and form of a range of historical eras. Since the 1960s, many architects more or less gave up of designing a new style of architecture, especially under the influence of postmodernism, which practically denied the possibility. Instead, designs harkened back to the Classical, Baroque, or Art-Deco styles. Today, architects will even use even Bauhaus-esque designs for pastiche. Such designs are aesthetical and practical, but they can also imbue us—and any visitor to the space—with a sense of what has come before, what made us who we are, and what we seek to attain.
Such overly-conscious pastiche is most obvious in entertainment spaces like casinos, malls, and cities like Las Vegas. These spaces monetize the nostalgic power of historical elements on a massive scale. In Las Vegas, you can walk from the Pyramids and Sphynx of Egypt to the Statue of Liberty in a matter of minutes. At the Winstar Casino in Oklahoma, a small replica of Big Ben is shoved side-by-side with the Coliseum and Paris’s Arc de Triumph. The architect, Lyndon Stromberg, who also designed the MGM Grand Casino of Las Vegas, juxtaposes a series of political buildings on the exterior of the casino to evoke the nostalgic feelings of power, empire, and influence. The nostalgic power of pastiche is wielded as a tool of consumerism to attract visitors.
The replicas found in China merely take this idea of pastiche to its far extreme. However, the 2007 replica of Paris in Hangzhou is not merely pastiche; it is duplication. Housing developers are trying to recreate Paris outside of Paris. This is, of course, part of a marketing scheme to drive sales, but it also operates by advertising an experience of what it is not. Like Las Vegas or the Winstar Casino, Hangzhou’s Paris represents an extreme form manipulating consumers’ nostalgia. Many marketing techniques leverage nostalgia by fixating on the consumer’s childhood, early romances, or family memories—experiences the consumer has actually had. This duplication of Paris, however, evokes nostalgia for something the consumer has probably never experienced.
Hangzhou’s Paris isn’t the only one of its kind. In the province of Guangdong, there is a one-to-one replica of Hallstatt, a small alpine village in Austria that is an UNESCO World Heritage Site. Housing developers poured 940 million dollars into recreating the village, complete with an artificially created hill and lake to match the mountain location of the original.
While in China, you can also visit Venice in Dalian, which has recreation of several miles of canals where you can ride a gondola. From there, you can visit Shanghai’s “Thames Town,” a British-themed development with Georgian townhouses, baroque churches, a red telephone box, and London-inspired cabs.
Many of these developments were built a little over ten years ago during the housing boom, before the housing crash deflated the speculation market. In 2018, over 20% of China’s urban housing was unoccupied, and luxury spaces like the European replica suburbs were rendered superfluous. Many of the themed suburbs are sparsely populated, even abandoned. Hangzhou’s Paris has fallen into disrepair. Locals call it a “Ghost City.” Few people live in Hallstatt, but visitors from nearby Luoyang and Huizhou use it as a convenient backdrop for wedding photographs.
Despite the apparent failure of these European replicas to gain any real traction in the housing market, the bewildering element remains: why would Chinese developers pour millions of dollars to replicate a location and era that most of their buyers haven’t experienced? The answer lies in the increased global awareness that we have because of the internet.
Today, we live in a global world where few regions are entirely segregated from others. Global trade and the spread of the internet have created more and more engagement between cultures, cities, peoples. Even if we’ve never visited Paris, France, we’ve seen hundreds of pictures of its street; we’ve watched moves filmed on the Champs-Elysees; we’ve bought Paris-themed napkins and gift-cards, café-style dining room chairs, or Eiffel Tower canvases. We can come to love a place we’ve never visited and to grow nostalgic for memories we never actually formed.
This nostalgia for non-existent memories is enacted within the themed housing developments of China’s Venice, Paris, Hallstatt, and Thames Town. The housing developers created an architectural shortcut for the experience of these beautiful and evocative spaces—themed suburbs. After all, as for many Americans, most Chinese citizens probably won’t have the opportunity to visit the real Paris or Venice. The replicas serve as stand-ins for the real thing, just like inherited nostalgia stands for the genuine nostalgia of actual experiences.
It’s not difficult imagine how a fake Paris would disappoint even the most optimistic of visitors. Even if housing developers perfectly replicated Little Paris’s architectural details, even if inhabitants actually moved into the “Ghost Town” and reinvigorated its empty streets, it’s still not Paris. It could not satiate one’s nostalgia; in fact, it could probably only increase it. Nostalgia itself feeds on a sense of “almost there” and “so close.” These feelings could only be intensified in a replica of Paris.
Like a museum, a replica can do no more than gesture towards the real thing—the real Paris, the real Hallstatt. History can’t be transplanted continents away in service of a housing development. No space can be truly replicated.
Our memories, however, are more difficult to classify. When we feel nostalgic, it can be hard to know whether it is a response to a truly experienced memory or to an imposed perception—a perception curated by screens and news media. Many marketers try to manipulate consumers’ nostalgia for childhood or previous decades. But as these themed suburbs show, marketers can now leverage consumers’ nostalgia for places and feelings they’ve never actually experienced in real life. If we each evaluated our own sources of nostalgia, we too might find that it may be rooted in imposed memories as well. Our own experiences and the consumption of others’ experiences via social media are blurring into one.
Hangzhou’s Paris is a fake city used to evoke fake nostalgia. It seems, however, that the line between fake and real nostalgia is becoming difficult to define.