Nation building

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 August, 2006, 12:00am

The tranquil lifestyle of Britain's Home Counties is something many people aspire to. Here, residents can stroll beneath the dreaming spire of an elegant sandstone church, amble along leafy avenues of red-bricked homes or sip soothing ales on the springy lawn of a village green in front of solid Georgian townhouses.

However, cast a relaxed glance towards the road signs, past the red post-boxes and telephone booths, and you soon notice all is not as it seems. Perhaps it is the blue-overalled migrant workers from Fujian wearing broad straw sunhats as they spruce up the village pub's signage, which announces, 'Real ales served here'. Or is it the teams of baggy-uniformed guards patrolling the area that look out of place?

And why are there Chinese characters on the advertising hoardings?

Welcome to Thames Town, a British-themed HK$3 billion development due to open in October in Songjiang New City, just 32km from the throbbing centre of China's biggest city, Shanghai. Noisy, dirty Shanghai seems a world away from the tree-lined, pedestrian-friendly streets of Thames Town, which feels to all intents and purposes like a posh commuter satellite town in the stockbroker belt of a British city. A rich British city.

Soon, residents will be able to sip their pints of bitter in a traditional English pub (called The Thames Town) as children scamper across the 'medieval' market square to a bilingual school. On the water

-front, red-brick warehouses form a commercial area and the developers are targeting retailers such as Tesco and Sainsbury's so the town's expected 10,000 residents can shop in authentic British style.

A school, run by the prestigious Shanghai Songjiang No 2 High School, will offer classes in Putonghua and English for locals and foreigners - although not in the same class; that remains forbidden under Chinese law. Other facilities include football pitches, a hospital and a clinic.

'Culture creates value. Thames Town, a representation of British architectural civilisation, has since integrated itself into Songjiang, rejuvenating this ancient land with its modernity and vitality,' is how the development is grandly described on its website (

Walking through Thames Town looking for evidence of culture creating value, it quickly becomes apparent there are crucial differences between the town's houses and those of suburban Britain. For starters, they are closer together - land is expensive. Catering to local tastes, the windows in the villas are often bigger than they would be in Britain. Allowances for fung shui have been made here and there too. But most obvious, perhaps, is the absence of antisocial behaviour, stolen cars and drunk teenagers on the village green or hanging around the entrance to the housing compounds. Tight security suggests such unsavoury sights will never been seen here.

Thames Town is part of the One City, Nine Towns project, a real estate masterplan that encircles Shanghai. Comprising 10 satellite communities around Shanghai, each is inspired by a country that has played a pivotal role in the city's colonial and commercial history. German New Town is one for car enthusiasts. Modelled on the country's cultural capital, Weimar, 30,000 people will live in buildings designed by Albert Speer, the son of Adolf Hitler's favourite architect. It is located in the former paddyfields of Anting, in the northwest, now home to the Formula One race track and a giant Volkswagen factory. Nordic Town represents Scandinavian living while in Spanish Town, you can do your shopping along a Chinese Las Ramblas. Italian Town, in the suburb of Pujiang, will have 100,000 citizens living by Venetian-style canals. Also represented will be Canada, The Netherlands and a European/American/Australian creation. Oh, and China Town. The developments are either up and running or due for completion in the next couple of years.

Thames Town is just one piece in the urbanisation jigsaw China is creating to house the millions of people relocating from rural areas to its cities. When it officially opens, as part of Songjiang New City, it will help transform Shanghai into the biggest city in the world. About 400 million rural residents are expected to make the move to urban living, creating a need for 3,000 new towns or cities by 2020. Developments such as Songjiang New City have strong political backing: the satellite-town plan is a pet project of Huang Ju, a former Communist Party secretary of Shanghai who is now a member of the State Council. When complete, Songjiang will be home to seven universities, the biggest shopping mall in the world and a list of hi-tech firms that reads like a directory of Fortune 500 companies. A train line, under construction, will bring the city within 15 minutes of Shanghai.

Covering just 1 sqkm, Thames Town is no metropolis, however; more a centre in which the affluent residents of Songjiang will be able to relax, watch English Premier League football and shop at Next and other British icons of consumerism.

'I like the town because of its beautiful British-style buildings,' says Wang Haijun, a promotions executive who has bought an apartment in Thames Town. '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.

'I think lots of people will want to live there. Take me, for example. When I bought it two years ago, I thought it wasn't convenient, not only the town but also the whole Songjiang New City area. But now

the surrounding facilities are working,' says Wang, who has lived in Shanghai for more than seven years, having moved from Jiangsu province.

'The town itself is a good place for living. The beautiful houses, the greens, plus more people have their own vehicles so they accept the western lifestyle of living in the satellite town and working in the city.'

Like the small British towns on which it was modelled, the central focus of Thames Town is a market square surrounded by medieval-style buildings, explains Paul Rice, architect with British consulting engineers and town planners WS Atkins.

'The idea is organic growth. Around the medieval centre, there is Georgian or Victorian architecture like in any town in England, with different heights and materials. There's almost no repetition in the design,' says Rice, who has been working on Thames Town for more than three years.

With a garden maze and a mock castle, some critics have compared Thames Town to a theme park, recreating Ye Olde England for homesick expatriates and aspirational, wealthy Chinese. But Thames Town is different and Rice dismisses any comparisons with Disneyland. This is the real thing.

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

In the late 19th century, foreign powers carved up Shanghai into districts controlled by imperial nations such as Britain and France. The establishment of these concessions was a humiliation for China but the elegant quarters distinguish Shanghai from other Chinese cities. Now, municipal officials have turned to the beautiful relics of the imperialist era for inspiration - this time, on their terms and for Chinese people. The developers have neatly sidestepped the brutal era of imperialist aggression and such incidents as the Opium Wars, focusing on common history instead.

'For at least five centuries, the English culture has captivated and mesmerised the world,' Thames Town's homepage enthuses. 'Few places can boast of having been the source of major world events and the focus of international attention over such an extended period of time.

'For at least five centuries, Songjiang - the birthplace of modern-day Shanghai - has enjoyed a prominent status in the city [... while Shanghai has evolved] from a playground for world adventurers in the 19th century to China's financial hub and a world-class cosmopolitan city in the 21st century.'

Thames Town is being jointly developed by Shanghai Songjiang New City Construction and Development, Shanghai Henghe Real Estate and other large real estate corporations. But beneath the commercial facade is a complex web of government involvement on numerous levels. And it looks like being a lucrative investment for all concerned. The prices per square foot in Thames Town range from HK$1,450 for a house, HK$540 to HK$635 for an apartment and from HK$1,360 to HK$1,860 for commercial property. That means the cheapest villa, at 3,300 sq ft, comes in at HK$4.8 million, while the biggest house on offer, at 4,056 sq ft, has a HK$5.9 million price tag.

'We began the sales in 2004 and have been selling our houses step by step,' says Shanghai Henghe's Ni Jungzeng. 'To date, 75 per cent of the houses are sold and most of the customers are local people. What most people seem to like is the environment and the British-styled houses.'

There are perceived problems with the planned communities, however. The Spanish and Canadian communities are located out of the way, with little nearby to allow for organic growth. In addition,

the Shanghai property market is under pressure, particularly as the government works to prick speculative bubbles wherever they may occur. Some analysts wonder if the satellite towns will ever be filled. The prices of luxury housing in Shanghai are still plummeting following government measures to cool an overheating economy and enthusiasm for high-end homes remains muted.

In its favour, Thames Town is certainly more imaginatively constructed than the usual Chinese

new town. It is a defiantly low-rise development for a country in which urban planners like to build on the grandest scale and where progress is marked out in huge skyscrapers and vast open developments that dwarf the individual. Rice believes people will respond positively 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.

In 2001, WS Atkins won an international design competition to build the British-themed town and

sent staff members out to study the architecture of southern England. They then headed to the mainland armed with ideas about reconstructing this kind of settlement in the hinterland of China's commercial heart. The developers wanted most of the materials imported to ensure authenticity. The slate for the roofs was an exception. The material is difficult to obtain everywhere except China these days, so they were able to source it locally.

If people don't choose to live in Thames Town, they might choose its picturesque scenery as the location for their nuptials. 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 has been modelled on one in Clifton, Bristol? Originally, the huge sandstone church was to function as a wedding business. It now appears the church will be consecrated by a Christian group in Shanghai, which will go some way to appeasing the vicar of Christ Church in Clifton, who questioned architects' motives for replicating the 76-metre spire and other aspects of his 19th-century church in a town 10,000km away.

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 Mao Zedong. Now, they have inspired a new wave of residential developments in satellite towns around Shanghai. Thames Town might feel like the Home Counties, but there's a lot of China in there too.