Where the Thames Flows Through China: Shanghai’s Ghost Towns
by Bettina Mueller-Tuescher, Curious Content Team
A traditional English village just outside of Shanghai might sound strange, but somehow it’s just peculiar enough to exist. In fact, Thames Town is one of nine towns surrounding Shanghai, each built in a different traditional Western style ranging from English to Spanish to Canadian.
In the late 1990s, the population density and size of Shanghai was rising at an exponential speed. Recognizing the unsustainability of this growth, urban planners proposed a solution that would effectively decentralize Shanghai, and implemented the “One City Nine Towns” initiative. This plan was intended to design nine satellite towns around the suburbs of Shanghai that would encourage residents to move outside of the city center, and thus decrease urban density.
Makes sense, right? This is where it gets interesting: in addition to the attempt to decentralize, planners decided that they would hire architects and urban designers from various Western countries to build the towns in the traditional styles of their respective home countries. The reasoning behind this choice remains ambiguous – perhaps they were meant to draw wealthy families outside of the city center with the novelty of living in an “authentic” Western town? Or maybe it was meant as an homage to western architecture and an attempt to endorse multicultural ideology? Whatever the reason, these unique new developments would rapidly draw Shanghai residents away from the city center…right?
Not exactly. As you’ve probably guessed, there were several flaws with this new infrastructure. First, none of the towns were designed with the contemporary Chinese lifestyle in mind, making them impractical for most individuals and families. Completed in 2006, Thames Town combines about 500 years of British architectural history within a 1-kilometer radius. Another major issue is that these towns are not easily accessible by public transportation, and Thames Town lies two hours outside the city center. Finally, as the plan was so ambitious and expensive – Thames Town alone cost £500 million to build – homes are incredibly costly, and there are relatively few employment opportunities available locally.
The attempt to recreate British culture is remarkable, though perhaps slightly erroneous. As the character Laura says in The Luckiest People: “It’s un…gettable. Like a really shoddy, bizarre replica of an English village. Cobblestone streets. British-style telephone booths. Fake castle ‘ruins.’ Statues of random British people. Winston Churchill. Princess Diana. Harry Potter.” Additionally, Thames Town was planned to have Sainsbury’s and Tesco grocery stores, a pub serving English ales, and a chip shop among its “authentic” British attractions. Though it sounds authentic enough on paper, Westerners tend to find Thames Town unappealing and often perceive it to be gimmicky and a “Disneyfied” version of England.
Today, Thames Town is usually pretty empty, as are the rest of the satellite towns. If you do a Google image search right now, most of the photos don’t feature any people, apart from the occasional Chinese couple taking wedding photos, just like Laura says: “[Henry] loves how quiet and deserted it is–except on Sundays. Then like a thousand brides descend to take pictures in front of the fake church steeple.” An artificial representation of a country halfway around the world, Thames Town and the other eight satellite towns show no sign of being adapted or revitalized.