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Notes on the Geography of China: Shanghai: Thames Town

"I wanted the properties to look exactly the same as those in the United Kingdom. I think English properties are very special. When we decide to learn from others, we should not make any improvements or changes." It doesn't sound like a recipe for success. No matter: a little England in China is what James Ho ordered, and he's the boss of Shanghai Hengde Real Estate, which called the shots. (Quotation from Reuters, 6 Nov 06)

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China: Shanghai: Thames Town picture 1

A map of Thames Town, which is only a small part (one square kilometer with a planned population of 10,000) of the much larger Songjiang Garden City New Town. An international competition put the planning and design of the whole shebang--garden city as well as Thames Town--on the lap of Atkins Consultancy, a major UK engineering firm. Here's what they gave Mr. Ho. The town center is marked with a star, and in this set of pictures we'll drift west from the center past townhouses to a church (6) and freestanding villas (5).

China: Shanghai: Thames Town picture 2

The buildings copy British buildings so closely that there have been complaints from British pub owners. The on-site Atkins architect, Paul Rice, insisted that the buildings were actually adapted from buildings at Lyme Regis and Bath, both near Atkins headquarters in Bristol.

China: Shanghai: Thames Town picture 3

It's hard to get lost in Thames Town, because the styles are arranged so that the town center is medieval, while the periphery is Victorian. Here, at the center, is one of the few businesses operating when the photo was taken early in 2007. The town had been ceremonially opened a few months earlier, In October 2006. Most of the houses were reportedly sold, but there were no or almost no occupants, perhaps because access to Thames Town was a major headache. A new rail line was supposed reach downtown Shanghai--20 miles to the northeast--in 15 minutes. A freeway was planned running south to Hangzhou. The convenience store in the picture was open only on a trial basis.

China: Shanghai: Thames Town picture 4

Tidy Tudor.

China: Shanghai: Thames Town picture 5

An exercise in half-timbering.

China: Shanghai: Thames Town picture 6

Are the buildings truly separate structures? Maybe, but very unlikely. Might as well ask if Main Street Disneyland has separate structures, but mentioning Disney here in Thames Town is tantamount to looking for a fight. The developers insist this place is a real city.

China: Shanghai: Thames Town picture 7

No, no, this isn't Manchester. We're still in Thames Town, specifically the restaurant quarter called Dockside. Not bad as an imitation.

China: Shanghai: Thames Town picture 8

Rising above the canal, a church, or at least the likeness of a church. It was conceived as a wedding chapel, but there have been press reports that it might be sanctified.

China: Shanghai: Thames Town picture 9

Perhaps it's a little too perfect to be real.

China: Shanghai: Thames Town picture 10

Could this street fool you? Too clean, perhaps? You can see the chronology laid out before you as we look back toward the center from what appears to be the beginning of Georgian England.

China: Shanghai: Thames Town picture 11

The developers invested $300 million of somebody's money in Thames Town.

China: Shanghai: Thames Town picture 12

Victorian row houses.

China: Shanghai: Thames Town picture 13

More upscale townhouses.

China: Shanghai: Thames Town picture 14

Townhouses and church.

China: Shanghai: Thames Town picture 15

Country inn.

China: Shanghai: Thames Town picture 16

Freestanding villas. These houses were priced by Shanghai Hengde from EUR490,000 and EUR 600,000 for houses between 307 and 377 square meters. Apartments are much cheaper, though still not cheap: about EUR600 per square meter.

China: Shanghai: Thames Town picture 17

Dusk in our fictitious England.

China: Shanghai: Thames Town picture 18

A guard in the Chinese equivalent of Beefeater Red.

China: Shanghai: Thames Town picture 19

Another guard, near the town hall. Did a first-time Chinese visitor recognize the likeness, crude as it is? Yes indeed. (Hunt a bit and you may just find the town's statues of Florence Nightingale and Shakespeare. If you're keen on the subject, you may want to visit Nanjing's Bali and Hangzhou's Venice and Zurich. Too far? Try Shanghai's Rancho Santa Fe.)

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