Spot the difference

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 March, 2012, 12:00am


The dirt track snakes uphill through rice paddies and groves of yellow bamboo before rounding a corner where, like a mirage, a neo-Gothic church tower and the spotless wooden roofs of Alpine chalets rise majestically above a muddy artificial lake.

Behind us, in a vast plain, are the homes of tens of millions of migrant workers, who struggle to earn a living in a cluster of some of the most polluted and industrialised cities on the planet - Huizhou, Dongguan, Guangzhou and Shenzhen. In front of us, in a Disney-like setting, are sumptuous hillside homes being built for factory owners in a multibillion-dollar carbon copy of the Unesco-listed Austrian picture postcard resort of Hallstatt.

Here, just an hour or so by chauffeur-driven limousine from the factories they run, industrialists with two million yuan (HK$2.5 million) to five million yuan to spare can leave the squalor far behind to indulge their snobbery for European culture, food and architecture.

News of the plans for a counterfeit Hallstatt generated a mixture of astonishment and outrage last summer when it emerged that 'spies' from Chinese developers had been preparing detailed blueprints during furtive European holidays posing as tourists. Six months later, with the villas nearing completion and the developers still smarting at the controversy, we decided to play at being spies, too, so as to be the first foreigners to set foot inside China's Hallstatt, or Hallstatt See ('Hallstatt lake', in German).

'YOU WON'T FIND anything like this anywhere else,' the young salesman says brightly, as we stand looking out across a muddy man-made lake at the resort. 'This is the only genuinely Austrian town in the whole of China.'

Little expense has been spared in this uniquely Chinese interpretation of an Alpine village, we find. Apart from precise copies of historic buildings, horse-drawn carriages and flocks of white doves will be imported to lend it an air of authenticity.

An extraordinary fact is that a brand new villa here, built in the style of a 300-year-old lakeside home, is being offered at a higher price than what you would pay if you were to go to Austria and buy the real thing. (A genuine three-storey 18th-century home in the real Hallstatt, overlooking its lake, is currently on the market for the equivalent of just over three million yuan.)

However, there is a problem: no one is buying. Since work began on the fake Hallstatt last summer, the mainland's booming property market has gone into free fall, and this imitation Austrian village may end up a ghost town. Furthermore, as the economy is growing at its slowest pace in more than two years, property prices - which have grown fivefold in the past decade - are projected to shrink by up to 20 per cent in the next year to 18 months.

The sudden change has shattered certainties for the country's rich, who, for years, have been snapping up luxury homes, often leaving them empty to preserve their treasured 'brand new' status, confident in the knowledge their value could only rise. With limited options for domestic investment, tycoons and middle-class buyers have put their faith and their money in real estate, the engine that has helped drive the mainland's extraordinary economic growth.

As wealth spread, property became a sure bet, with developers coming up with increasingly lavish and exotic developments to sate the appetites of the country's super-rich - the genesis for Guangdong province's Hallstatt.

XU KAIGIN LEADS US PAST a cordon of security checkpoints and points out a huddle of villas to the right of the imitation town centre that he thinks might appeal to our budget. We have introduced ourselves as expatriates from Hong Kong looking for investment properties - and Xu is eager to secure a sale. As the developers behind the project have observed, if Chinese buyers don't snap these villas up, they might appeal to homesick Western expatriates.

'Magnificent, isn't it?' says Xu, gesturing towards a replica of Hallstatt's 1860 Protestant Christuskirche (Church of our Lord), at the heart of a cluster of town centre buildings. 'This is more beautiful than anything you can buy anywhere in China. It is authentically Austrian and just like the real thing. I am sure Americans living in China will love it here, too - they like European things just like we Chinese do.'

The villas, he assures us, will be ready to move into by May.

Workers are busy completing the replica Alpine town centre. On the slopes behind, chalet-style villas are taking shape as cranes lift imported trees into place along arid, steep red hillsides crudely cleared of all their native bamboo and subtropical undergrowth.

The replica church, Xu says, will be used for resident facilities. It might be a restaurant, a sports venue or a concert hall, but one thing looks certain: it won't be used for worship.

Built on a nondescript hillside, the town is a distorted mirror image of the real Hallstatt. While the church and cluster of Alpine buildings might look as Austrian as lederhosen and wiener schnitzel, many of the features here simply don't measure up. The fake lake, for instance. It is, Xu proudly says, an impressive 1,800 square feet and 680 metres across, albeit little more than pond-deep - the original, by contrast, is more than 50 times larger and 126 metres deep. Then there are the 3,200-metre high snowy mountains that surround the real Hallstatt. China's version is ringed by a collection of parched yellow hills, none of which are more than a few hundred feet above sea level. And while the 800 residents of the real Hallstatt breathe pristine mountain air, their Guangdong counterparts will gaze out, from their slightly eleva- ted position, as far as the smog allows across their country's heavily polluted industrial heartland.

Whatever it might lack in natural assets, though, China's Hallstatt more than makes up for in hyperbole. A plush, leather-bound brochure presented by Xu makes extravagant promises on the golden future awaiting buyers when the bulldozers finally move out. Artists' impressions and photoshopped images show the pedestrianised zone outside the church, grandly named Culture Square, and couples sitting on park benches as horse-drawn carriages trot past.

'There will be real white doves in the square,' the brochure claims.

In idyllic scenes purporting to show what home life will be like in this European outpost, waterfalls cascade through lush green gardens full of exotic Alpine flowers that, the brochure promises, blossom year-round.

'You can go to Viennese cake shops, a beer house and a romantic Austrian-style square,' the brochure gushes. 'There will be a famous international school and kindergartens, so children can have a wonderful childhood and get the best education.'

As if stealing an entire Alpine village wasn't enough, the brochure goes on to tell potential buyers they can expect some geographically improbable extras if they are lucky enough to invest. It will include a replica of the street where Mozart was born, Getreidegasse, complete with a Mozart library, a musical instrument store and a period ironmonger - even though Getreidegasse is actually in Salzburg. The neighbouring street in the development's central area is named after Vienna's Belvedere Palace, 320 kilometres from the real Hallstatt, although the developers have stopped short of trying to reproduce the 18th-century estate on the site.

Describing the development as 'the first offer of Austrian Lake and Hill Town to China', the brochure boasts that despite its lack of altitude, it will include a mountain-top swimming pool, the region's only mountain sports club and restaurants serving the very best of European cuisine. The counterfeit town is designed to tap a keen passion for European culture among the country's nouveau riche. Wealthy Chinese are the world's biggest buyers of fine French wines, and a taste for European culture is seen as a mark of sophistication and success.

Luxury villas in the mainland are often modelled on French chateaux while historic city neighbourhoods are bulldozed without a thought to make way for glitzy apartment blocks and shopping malls in the country's rush for modernity. The paradoxical result is old quarters in city centres levelled for new high-rises while, near Shanghai for example, up springs Thames Town, a 2006 development based on an old English town and featuring cobbled streets, a garden maze and a pub serving traditional beers.

The sudden appearance of an Austrian town in the neighbourhood has inevitably caused head-scratching in surrounding villages, where families eke out a living by farming rice or working in one of a string of factories making electrical cables.

'It looks very strange,' says 79-year-old Yan Yuxi, as construction lorries trundle past her single-storey stone house, in Boluo town, less than a mile away. 'This is a simple place. Why do rich people want to live out here?' Showing off her pension book, the great-grandmother says: 'I am very poor and I only have welfare to live off. But some people today have so much money that they can't spend it all. I don't understand it.'

Her neighbour, a 45-year-old taxi driver called Mr Yu, is underwhelmed. 'Many expensive homes have been built in this area but they're not real homes. Rich people just buy them for show and to make money from,' he says. 'They don't live in them and I don't think they'll do us any good.'

Xu concedes the fantastical images in the brochure, showing families playing in the sunshine and bustling streets and shops, may not be an entirely accurate portrayal of what life in China's Hallstatt will be like when it is complete.

'I think people will live here because it is such a beautiful place,' he says, before adding hesitantly, 'It is true that some Chinese business- men do buy as an investment but usually they do not live there. There will be a mixture here.'

The mainland already has a surplus of empty luxury homes. In Shanghai, more than half of the luxury homes sold are kept empty, turning moneyed suburbs into eerie bejewelled wastelands. Ordos, a gleaming new city built in the Inner Mongolia desert for mining tycoons to invest in, is a ghost town for the same reason, with less than 50,000 residents in a city with the infrastructure and homes for one million. The same fate has befallen Thames Town, which a visitor last year described as 'like the set of The Truman Show' and deserted except for a handful of couples having wedding photographs taken. And just 80 kilometres south of China's Hallstatt, on hills above Shenzhen, rows of immaculate villas built five years ago and based on the Swiss municipality of Interlaken stand empty, patrolled by bored-looking security guards but without a single curtain in the windows.

At China's Interlaken, we are told, most of the properties have been bought but in Hallstatt, the fear for developers is that the villas will be left not only unoccupied but unsold.

The omens are not good. The price of new homes in the mainland fell for the third consecutive month in December, with annual growth in real-estate investment slowing to its weakest pace for a year. That slowdown has been spurred by measures taken by Beijing over the past 18 months to prevent the property market overheating.

Worryingly for the country's leaders, it is not only the rich who are seeing the value of their investments plunge but also middle- class city dwellers, who tend to plough their life savings into apartments in cities. In recent months, angry protests have erupted as apartment owners have seen developers slash prices for identical neighbouring properties because of shrinking demand.

Property prices underpin virtually all lending in the mainland, meaning that if they continue to fall, every sector will be affected, with global consequences as the United States struggles and Europe teeters on the brink of recession. So the failure of China's Austrian town, and developments like it across the country, is likely to reverberate as far away as the real Hallstatt, where outrage at the attempt to copy their town appears to have cooled into detached amusement.

Half a year after its townspeople were scandalised by the copycat Chinese, the resort's official website carries the introduction: 'Hallstatt - the original: Photographed a million times - Copied once.'

The website goes on to gloat: 'Hallstatt is such an unbelievably spectacular place that even the Chinese have created a copy. But only in the original will you discover this truly unique culture with such history in a breathtaking mountain setting.'

Those accusations of counterfeiting combined with a complaint to Unesco from the Austrian town's mayor have clearly stung the Chinese developers. When I ask Xu if the town really is an exact copy of the original, he looks flustered and replies, 'No, no, not at all. We just took the idea and the atmosphere and adapted it.'

He then excuses himself and walks away to make calls on his mobile phone.

'That was a Mr Zheng from Beijing,' he tells us. 'He wants to know the prices of the villas. You see? People from all over China and overseas want to live here.'

Exactly how many villas have been sold so far, I ask Xu.

'None at the moment,' he admits - but some are reserved for VIP clients, he says.

The VIP clients, it turns out, are lowly paid government officials who may end up paying something well short of the asking price for the privilege of owning a luxury villa, according to Xu.

Xu announces our visit is over and hurries us back into our taxi and to our hotel, where a model display of the development in the lobby is hurriedly and inexplicably dismantled and put away. Explaining the sudden change of mood, our translator says, 'I think he is worried you might not be buyers but that you might be citizens from Austria, coming to see what is going on here. It is a very sensitive subject.'

With the property slump threatening to transform China's Hallstatt into a folly of monumental proportions, Austrian spies ought to be the least of worries for the champions of this Alpine oddity.