Not quite a century ago, Shanghai was known as “the Paris of the East.” (Or it became one of the cities to enjoy that reputation, at any rate.) Today, you can catch a high-speed train in Shanghai and, just an hour later, arrive in a place that has made a much more literal bid for that title: Tianducheng, a district modeled directly on the French capital, complete with not entirely unconvincing faux-Haussmannian apartment buildings and boulevards. Struggling to attract residents in the years after its construction on farmland at the outskirts of Hangzhou in 2007, Tianducheng soon came to be regarded as one of China’s over-ambitious ghost towns.
Bizarre as it may seem to those unfamiliar with recent trends in Chinese city-building, Tianducheng actually belongs to a kind of imitative tradition. “On the outskirts of Beijing, a replica of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, is outfitted with cowboys and a Route 66,” writes National Geographic’s Gulnaz Khan.
“Red telephone booths, pubs, and statues of Winston Churchill pepper the corridors of Shanghai’s Thames Town. The city of Fuzhou is constructing a replica of Stratford-upon-Avon in tribute to Shakespeare.” To get a sense of how Tianducheng fares today, have a look at “I Explored China’s Failed $1 Billion Copy of Paris,” the new video from Youtube travel channel Yes Theory.
The group of friends making this trip includes one Frenchman, who admits to a certain sense of familiarity in the built environment of Tianducheng, and even seems genuinely stunned by his first glimpse of its one-third-scale version of the Eiffel Tower. (It surely pleases visiting Parisians to see that the developers haven’t also built their own Tour Montparnasse.) But apart from Chinese couples in search of a wedding-photo spot, this ersatz Eiffel Tower doesn’t seem to draw many visitors, or at least not during the day. As Yes Theory’s travelers discover, the neighborhood doesn’t come alive until the evening, when such locals as have settled in Tianducheng come out and enjoy their unusual cityscape. The street life of this Champs-Élysées is a far cry indeed from the real one — but in its way, it also looks like a lot more fun.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.