Shanghai's city planners are carrying out an ambitious scheme to relieve population pressure: They are resettling 500,000 people in nine new towns in the suburbs. Each is built in a distinctive style, including an Italian town with canals based on Venice and a German town designed by Albert Speer, the son of Hitler's favorite architect.
Thames Town is one of these new settlements. It features cobbled streets, half-timbered Tudor houses, Edwardian townhouses, and a covered market with a clock tower and weather vane on top. Thames Town looks like an English country town. And that was the whole idea, to re-create Middle England in the Middle Kingdom.
Paul Rice, of the British company Atkins, was the lead architect for Thames Town. He says the developers of the community wanted a complete, functioning English town, with its own schools, shops, and residential and recreational areas.
Shanghai has a tradition of English, French and German architecture in the concession settlements of central Shanghai, Rice notes.
And the clients saw nothing strange about re-creating those types of settlements on the outskirts of Shanghai.
But when it comes down to it, in China, it's always about the bottom line.
Developer James Ho says the main consideration in building Thames Town was a commercial one.
"Beautiful buildings are always welcomed by customers. ... If the building's style is different from others, it will have its own market. It will be easy to make money, to add profit," he says.
Thames Town even has its own church, complete with stained-glass windows and a towering spire. It's mainly being used now as a backdrop for wedding photographs.
Recently, a young couple, Yang Jinghui and Zi Haiying, posed for wedding photographs on the lawn in front of Thames Town church.
They say they love Thames Town, but although they have good jobs working for large Western companies, they don't think they'll ever be able to afford to live here.
One of the lucky few is a Mrs. Lu, who lives in a quarter-million-dollar villa.
"I like it because it's like a foreign country here," she says.
In fact, some have denounced the satellite town scheme as a form of self-colonization. Another criticism is that Thames Town is yet another example of China's copycat fever — a pale imitation at best.
In particular, two buildings have sparked controversy. There's a squarish, white, three-story building with a sign that reads "Rock Point Inn." It's next to a smaller, white building called "Cob Gate Fish Bar."
The problem is that these establishments do actually exist, and they've been copied wholesale from the British town of Lyme Regis. Their discovery in Thames Town sparked near hysteria in the British press, which carried interviews with the landlady of the pub and fish 'n' chips shop in colorfully titled pieces such as "Chinese Takeaway" and "How the Chinese Stole My Chippy."
Paul Rice from the architect Atkins denies any wrongdoing. He says the client saw the names of the buildings as "decorative," and that when tenants move into the buildings, they will change the names.
But even as Thames Town was declared open in a lavish ceremony, it seems far from achieving its original objective. With its empty streets and unrented shops, it's more like a ghost town. And with homes priced out of the market for many, Shanghai's plans for its satellite towns are placing gimmicky foreign settlements above the real needs of its own people.