I once wanted to visit an “Italian” restaurant and tried to open its Tuscan style door. Alas, the door was fake and my attempt to enter the restaurant in question, which was in the Guangdong province in southern China, must have looked quite awkward. Almost everyone who has wandered the neighbouring continent for a month will easily understand the urge to eat something with a more familiar taste. Whatever the case may be, it is interesting that my failed attempt to open the door is not so unusual. When exploring the new urban centres of these Asian regions, travellers inevitably find themselves in villages, streets or even cities that recreate remarkably well the feeling that one has never completely left the West.
After the turn of the millennium, China has seen centuries of European architectural history go by in a flash, accompanied by glittery replicas of the Palace of Versailles, the Eiffel Tower overlooking the avenues of Paris, crammed bourgeois houses of Amsterdam and the pompous American iconography known as Beverly Hills. In the southern part of the country, many world‑renowned architectural icons were very quickly built on locations that were up to that point empty and anonymous.
This is not specific to architecture. Throughout its history, China has successfully taken over foreign customs and habits, reshaped them a bit and then incorporated them into its own culture. Better yet, architectural appropriation is not characteristic of China alone. In China’s defence, copying architectural iconography was nothing unusual in the past; let us only consider the fact that 23 other countries also possess their own replica of the Eiffel Tower. The phenomenon of copying the tower began in Great Britain only a year after the original was completed. The United States alone boasts 10 replicas of different size. Tianducheng is not an exception, it only took the task of copying to the absurd. The fact is that in China, “theme” homes sell better and at a higher price than standard apartments in concrete buildings. Here, I am of course disregarding the economic aspects that pertain to the Chinese phenomenon of copying and the motives of the investors. It is much more interesting to observe what is actually happening with these copies of Western cities. The Chinese Paris, that is Tianducheng, was initially planned to house 10,000 citizens, while it is currently inhabited by only 2,000 people, many of whom work in the neighbouring, believe it or not, French‑themed amusement park. However, Tianducheng is not a ghost town—the majority of real estate is sold out and the owners of these properties spend their days working in Hangzhou, the capital of the Zhejiang province, and travel to the “City of Love” over the weekend. The touristic character and somewhat slower pace of the city where mostly Chinese tourists can “taste” their own image of the West are therefore not unusual. The complexes, neighbourhoods and even cities with a Western “touch” were extensively covered by the media and nobody outside the Zhejiang province would have probably even heard of Tianducheng if the city hadn’t adopted the image of one of the most widely recognised European urban centres. Consequently, a large number of tourists travelled to parts of Asia that were until recently completely anonymous.
Iconic cities are easily identifiable, that is a fact. After all, Paris was brought to the Chinese provinces for this very reason—who has the time to travel to a different continent and back in a single weekend?! However, what is easily identifiable should not be too readily equated with identity. To adopt the appearance of a certain city does not contribute to its identity but on the contrary makes even more apparent the incongruence of the city’s very core—such a city will never find “itself” but will forever stumble in the shadow of the mask it has donned. What we are discussing is the West according to the Chinese, an architectural anachronism that copies the visual appearance but does not manage to keep up with the pulse of the “original” city. If such a thing as the “original” even exists.
The point of all this is not to give some kind of a value judgement, let alone “architectural moralism”, but rather to think an other space—a city which is neither here nor there, but elsewhere and different. A city which is essentially built in such a way that it does not belong in these parts; a city that, so to speak, flew in from somewhere else. Heterotopia? Tianducheng, a city that is neither Chinese nor European, identifiable yet identityless. However, if taking up a certain visual appearance does not guarantee the identity of a location, it is worthwhile asking what is then its core? Singular objects that create identifiability and travel the world printed on postcards have little to do with identity. Wouldn’t it be too simple to claim that the world‑famous image of the Eiffel Tower is in some way the identity of Paris? Especially when street vendors in Tianducheng offer traditional steamed Chinese dumplings and not croissants and when one can quickly spot the locals sipping on a cup of green tea rather than a glass of Provence wine. This leads us to conclude that a major part of what shapes the identity of a city or a place is not characterised by singularity but by the anonymous, almost unnoticeable repetition of everyday habits. Identifiability is singular, identity falls under generality. These are the things that we pay little attention to; things that occur automatically; things that go unnoticed yet speak and compose the identity of a place to the greatest extent. Generality is not unchanging, for this is much more a characteristic of singularity. Identity is a “living thing”. Time brings changes that transform space and its characteristics. Change is therefore a constituent of the very matter of identity … All of this is not far off from the “original” Paris, the city where one can taste delicious Asian food and indulge in the sweet smell of Turkish kebab. Which is not that bad after all!