Welcome to China's Thames Town

Builders are putting the finishing touches to a new town that is forever England, complete with pub and market square. This is not the Home Counties, however, but the outskirts of the world's fastest-growing city. Clifford Coonan reports

Monday 14 August 2006 00:00

Strolling beneath the dreaming spire of the town's sandstone church, along leafy avenues of red-bricked homes or enjoying the comforting lawn of the village green, the solid rock of Georgian townhouses, you start checking the road signs to see which part of England you are in. All that is missing is the reassuring thwock of a leather cricket ball against willow bat, yellow car licence plates, the scent of Yorkshire pudding and beef and gravy.

If you look past the red post-boxes and telephone kiosks you'll see this is Thames Town, a British-themed development in Songjiang City, just 20 miles from the throbbing centre of China's biggest city, Shanghai.

Loud, dirty Shanghai seems a far cry from the yew and plane-lined avenues and cobbled pedestrian-friendly streets of Thames Town. Here the broad sun-hats of the Chinese workers putting the finishing touches to the development are the only indication that you are on the outskirts of China's biggest city. Not in a posh commuter town in the stockbroker belt of a British city.

Residents can sip their bitter in a traditional English pub, "The Thames Town", as children scamper across the medieval market square to a bilingual school, while red-brick warehouses form a commercial area on the waterfront. Developers are targeting British companies such as Tesco and Sainsbury to add to the authentic high-street feel so the town's expected 10,000 residents can shop in true British style. There are sporting facilities and everything a town of its size should have.

When it officially opens in October, the £200m development will be part of Songjiang City, itself a piece in an enormous urbanisation jigsaw which will rehouse millions of people in the outskirts of the city and transform Shanghai into the biggest city in the world.

Songjiang will be home to seven universities, the biggest shopping mall in the world, and a range of high-tech firms that reads like a directory of Fortune 500 companies. A train line is under construction to cut the journey from the city to 15 minutes. Some 400 million people from the countryside are expected to move into urban areas, which means China needs 3,000 new towns or cities by 2020.

Thames Town is no metropolis, however, more a centre for affluent members of Songjiang to relax, watch Premiership football and shop at Next and other UK consumer icons.

Like its small-town models in Britain, the central focus is a market square, surrounded by medieval buildings, explains Paul Rice, architect with the British consulting engineers and town planners WS Atkins, which is building the project: "The idea is organic growth. Around the medieval centre, there is Georgian or Victorian architecture like any town in England, with different heights and materials. There's almost no repetition in the design," said Rice, who has been working on Thames Town for over three years.

With a garden maze and a mock castle -- the windmill was cancelled -- some critics might compare Thames Town to a theme park, recreating Ye Olde England for homesick expatriates and aspirational, moneyed Chinese, but Rice dismisses comparisons with Disneyland. This is the real thing.

"Disneyland is a dangerous term to use. This is intended as a real town. Thames Town is organic and natural and this project was a chance to build something unique," says Rice.

There are nine towns in the master plan and their templates are the old European quarters of Shanghai. In the late 19th century, foreign powers carved up Shanghai into districts controlled by imperial nations like Britain and France. The establishment of the concessions was a humiliation for China. But the elegant quarters distinguish Shanghai from other Chinese cities, and municipal officials decided to turn to the beautiful relics of the imperialist era for inspiration - this time on their terms.

"Culture creates value. Thames Town, a representation of British architectural civilisation, has integrated itself into Songjiang, rejuvenating this ancient land with its modernity and vitality," is how the developers, Shanghai Henghe Real, trumpet the project on their website.

Prices in Thames Town range from £1,076 per square metre for a house, £404-470 for an apartment and up to £1,345 for commercial property. That means the cheapest villa, at 307 square metres, comes in at £330,000, while the biggest house on offer, 377 square metres, is £406,000.

"We began the sales in 2004 and have been selling our houses step by step. To date, 75 per cent of the houses are sold out and most of the customers are local people," says Ni Jungzeng of Shanghai Henghe.

"What most people seem to like is the environment and the British-styled houses," says Ni. It's not just British houses. German New Town is one for the car enthusiast. Containing homes modelled on the country's cultural capital Weimar and housing 30,000 people in a development designed by Albert Speer, son of Adolf Hitler's favourite architect, German New Town is situated in the former paddy fields of Anting, which is now home to the Formula One race track and the giant Volkswagen factory. Nordic Town represents Scandinavian living, while in Barcelona Town you can do your shopping down a Chinese Ramblas. Italian Town in the suburb of Pujiang will have 100,000 citizens living by Venetian-style canals.

There are some problems with the planned communities. The Spanish and Canadian communities are situated somewhat out of the way, with little nearby to allow for organic growth. And there are other external factors. The Shanghai property market is under pressure and some analysts wonder if the satellite towns will ever be filled. The prices of luxury housing in Shanghai are still reeling from the end of a bubble, as government measures to cool an overheating economy dampened enthusiasm for high-end homes.

Future residents in Thames Town will work or study at one of the universities being moved out of the city to Songjiang University City, but developers are also wooing factory managers from Shanghai and neighbouring Zhejiang province, one of China's big factory states, to Thames Town.

"Inevitably people from Shanghai will move here but this town is not intended to be an expatriate settlement," said Rice.

Someone who has moved from Shanghai is Wang Haijun, who has bought in to the town. "I like the town because of its beautiful British-style buildings. I've never seen such a town in China, it's the first. And as far as I know, the developer of the town will create a fashion, art, commercial area in the core of the town, so I think it will be a good place to stay in," she said. "I think lots of people will want to live there. Take me for example.

"The town is a good place to live. The beautiful houses, the greens, and more and more people have their own vehicles so they would like to live in. They accept the Western lifestyle of living in the satellite town and working in the urban environment," she said.

It's certainly true that Thames Town is more imaginatively constructed than the usual Chinese new town. Thames Town is a defiantly low-rise development for a country where urban planners like to build on the grandest scale imaginable, and progress has been marked out in huge skyscrapers and vast open developments which dwarf the individual.

Rice believes that people will respond better to this more personal style of development.

"What makes it a success is the fact that it's a pedestrian-centred town, it's a real place. It will be a success for its human, very intimate scale," he says.

Atkins won an international design competition in 2001 to build the British-themed town and sent its people out to study the architecture of southern England. The developer wanted most of the materials imported for purposes of authenticity. One thing that was not imported was slate for the roof, which is difficult to get everywhere these days, except China.

Weddings are big business in China and finding the right venue is crucial. Where better to get Four Weddings and a Funeral cachet for your white wedding than in Thames Town's church, which is modelled on one in Clifton in Bristol. Originally, the huge sandstone church was to function as a wedding business, although it now looks like the church will be consecrated by a Christian group in Shanghai.

The European "concessions" still survive as elegant yet shabby testaments to China's uneasy relations with the West. Their beginnings may have been rooted in Western supremacy, but they also saw the birth of the Communist Party in the 1920s, and later played host to its most radical, anti-foreigner factions under Chairman Mao.

Thames Town and the other foreign-influenced satellite towns are symbols of a different kind of China. Thames Town feels like the Home Counties. But with Chinese characteristics.

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