A Visit to Tianducheng, China’s Eerily Empty $1 Billion Copy of Paris

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.

Relat­ed con­tent:

A 5‑Hour Walk­ing Tour of Paris and Its Famous Streets, Mon­u­ments & Parks

A 3D Ani­ma­tion Reveals What Paris Looked Like When It Was a Roman Town

Japan­ese Guid­ed Tours of the Lou­vre, Ver­sailles, the Marais & Oth­er Famous French Places (Eng­lish Sub­ti­tles Includ­ed)

A Chi­nese Painter Spe­cial­iz­ing in Copy­ing Van Gogh Paint­ings Trav­els to Ams­ter­dam & Sees Van Gogh’s Mas­ter­pieces for the First Time

The Sights & Sounds of 18th Cen­tu­ry Paris Get Recre­at­ed with 3D Audio and Ani­ma­tion

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.

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