Shanghai stumbles into suburbia

Thames Town was once mocked by Western media for its weirdness, but residents have learned to appreciate its slower pace of life.

Wall Street Journal

“I’ve been to a lot of places -- I’ve been to England, America, Russia ...” Wang Jianhua pauses for a moment. “Also Malaysia, Thailand, South Africa, New Zealand …” Her friend stands next to her, smiling each time a new country is mentioned.

“Okay, but if you’ve been to the real England, why did you come here?”

The two women and I are standing on a cobblestoned street, Edwardian-style buildings lining either side. The spire of a church pokes up over a roof behind Wang. The sky is gray, which is fitting since we’re in Thames Town, a quasi-British development on Shanghai’s western outskirts.

“We’re just here on a day trip,” Wang explains. A retired doctor, she still lives downtown, about 40 kilometers away. Her friend is a former journalist. I’ve interrupted a ladies’ day out.

“But is it authentic?”

Wang shrugs. “It’s pretty good.”

Pretty good or not, what Wang doesn’t know is that a few years back Thames Town was a sensation in the Western media. Everyone from CNN to the Mail Online ran pictures of the development’s red telephone booths and statues of famous Brits like Winston Churchill and Harry Potter that dot the public squares. Headlines threw around words like “fake” and “copy.” A frequent takeaway was: Look, there goes China with another white-elephant project mimicking the West.

But Ms. Wang is not perturbed by the mockery. “It’s relaxing.” Her friend adds, “We’re having fun.”

Thames Town was a whimsical offshoot of a serious piece of urban planning. When Shanghai created its 10th five-year plan in 2001, it included a measure called 'One City Nine Towns'. Foreseeing an influx of migrants that might strain downtown housing and infrastructure, the city decided to “decentralize” the population by constructing new urban centers on Shanghai’s periphery. But in an added twist, each town was to have a small portion built in the style of another country. Now Shanghai has an Italian town, a German town, even a Canadian town.

Thames Town gained the most media attention. Foreign journalists were struck not only by the familiar architectural tropes, but also by how the town was almost completely empty. Houses were bought but never occupied or rented, a frequent investment pattern in 21st-century China. And it seemed the only visitors were the stream of brides coming to the cobbled streets for a European background to their prewedding photo shoots.

Yet like many other initially empty developments, Thames Town has slowly become a functioning community. And the people I meet in Thames Town are bemused by all the fuss over the town’s foreign appearance.

Take Wang Ronggen, an artist with a studio in Thames Town. “A few years ago I had dinner with a reporter from France. He asked me why we take the British style, why do people live here.” He takes a puff from a cigarette. “No one took the style. They borrowed. And this is a place to live.”

Other residents had similar interactions with journalists. Tang Yuhai, a worker in the pharmaceutical industry in his late 50s, was once featured in an article titled “China’s Great British Love Affair” that ran in the Daily Telegraph’s weekend magazine. He owns a town house in Thames Town for him and his wife to stay in on the weekends. And while he appreciates British culture, that’s not the main draw.

“It’s very peaceful,” he says. “But now more and more people are coming here, especially on the weekends.”

Tang offers to take me on a brief tour. He points out how the local government has made the area more livable: There’s a large public square with a museum and urban-planning exhibit, and public art is displayed in open areas. Even though it’s Saturday -- the town’s busiest day -- it seems impossible that this is part of Shanghai, China’s most populated city.

As we end our walk, I learn that Tang has decidedly to settle here permanently. “Thames Town is a great place to grow old,” he says.

That testimony speaks to a success ignored by the sensational media coverage. While Thames Town can feel eerily quiet at times, the development offers an alternative from the hubbub of downtown Shanghai. It’s a place where people can find space for themselves. And while the 10th five-year plan did not say it in so many words, that’s what “One City Nine Towns” set out to do—create a Chinese vision of suburbia.

Cameron White is a Princeton in Asia fellow at The Wall Street Journal Asia editorial page.

This article was first published at the Wall Street Journal. Reproduced with permission.