At that time, in 2007, its construction did a name of itself with its Haussmanian buildings, the 1/3 replica of the Eiffel Tower and its French-style park borrowed from the Château de Versailles. Amused and often condescending, the city fortunately had the good taste to be a stinging urban failure, proving that Paris could not be imitated and above all that these Chinese, despite all their money and their disproportionate projects, could not match the art of living in the City of Light.
It is true that 5 years after the end of its construction, Tiandu Cheng had only 2000 inhabitants out of the 10,000 expected and that it was on the – long – list of Chinese ghost towns.
But what about today ?
From fantasy to reality on the ground.
It has often been said that Tiandu Cheng was intended to be a luxury real estate project for a superior class who, without sufficient means or time to travel, wanted to reach the European standard of living and quality of life, at least in their dreams.
However, this was a misunderstanding of the reality on the ground.
Paris for a luxury clientele ?
First of all, at the time of its construction, housing needs were acute. Tiandu Cheng is located in the suburbs of Hangzhou, which has a population of nearly 10 million and one of the richest cities in China. Major plans to renew and modernize housing in the city centre that were unhealthy – or declared as such by private entrepreneurs who did not hesitate to engage in corruption – forced thousands of people to relocate elsewhere. As a result, many of them were allocated 1, 2 or even 3 dwellings in Tiandu Cheng depending on the size of the household, as compensation for the loss of their original accommodation.
From this follows two things. The first is that the vacancies did not mean that they had not found a buyer, but that there were simply not enough of them to occupy all the apartments they had become owners.
Moreover, if several units at a time were allocated to a household as compensation for a single apartment, it is easy to understand that they were therefore much cheaper than the one in the city centre.
Tiandu Cheng was therefore never intended for a luxury clientele and was never sold as such! Because despite their sculptures on the facade, the services of these apartments are extremely basic, they are small with a maximum of 70 m² and the buildings do not even have an elevator. Not to mention the fact that at the time, Tiandu Cheng was lost in the middle of the fields in an area that was still mainly rural and where it was not at all chic to go and live !
In China, nothing is more classic than a real estate complex per 10,000 inhabitants.
It is often said that in China you have to multiply everything by 10. This adage obviously applies to real estate developments that are still flourishing at an incredible rate today! Housing for 10,000 people, nothing more traditional in the Chinese urban landscape. Thus, the « Parisian architecture » part of this district is only a small part of what is planned because in the long term it will be a district of 30,000 inhabitants! The delivery of the last apartments is scheduled for 2020. Of course, the infrastructure must follow – roads, schools, hospitals, transport, etc. – and the creation of a city of 30,000 inhabitants ex nihilo does not happen overnight. But at the same time as the last apartments will be delivered, the district will be served by a new metro line.
Behind this project, the company Guangsha.
Contrary to what has often been written, this city is not the whim of a Chinese billionaire but the project of the Guangsha real estate company which is one of the most important in China. Did she manage to sell all her apartments?
It would seem so, at least as far as the « Parisian » part is concerned. They have all been sold and the offer is non-existent. And if today a majority of the occupants are tenants, it is because the owners have since bought better quality and especially more spacious housing in the new neighboring buildings. Indeed, according to the apartment management office, the Parisian part suffers today from a serious lack of maintenance and many buildings have serious water infiltration problems, which means that it suffers from a bad reputation.
On the other hand, the other part of Tiandu Cheng, also built by the Guangsha company, is very successful. There, to buy an apartment, it’s about 20,000 rmb/m2, or 2500 euro/m². When we know that the price per square meter is two, sometimes three times higher in the centre of Hangzhou, it is not surprising that the inhabitants are rather first-time buyers or people who simply do not have the means to buy a home in more « upscale » neighborhoods. But even if you are willing to pay the price, there is no guarantee that you will be able to buy. Indeed, in China, faced with demand, it is common to go through the « draw » box to determine who, among all the candidates, will have the chance to actually buy the property. And in Tiandu Cheng, the odds are only between 2 and 3% depending on the situation and the building.
The « duplitecture ».
Of course, the burning question is whether the inhabitants think they really live in a replica of Paris and whether this district really attracts Chinese tourists who cannot travel. As expected, people are not fooled and no one imagines that the real Paris looks like this district, even if they have never been there. Apart from the Eiffel Tower they know the exact smaller replica of the original, not one thinks that coming here is like visiting Paris.
Criticized for its « copy » of Haussmanian architecture by the Western media, in China replication is not seen as a problem but rather as a quality, a heritage of Confucianism that encourages the student to imitate the master. In general, there are many cases of copies of monuments and cities in China, what the journalist Bianca Bosker calls « duplitecture », a suitcase word that mixes « duplication » and « architecture ». But it is not only in China and the city of Las Vegas in the United States is famous for replicas of famous monuments. In the same vein, what then should we think of monuments directly inspired by ancient Rome or Greece through Western countries ?
In Tiandu Cheng there are finally only very few exact replicas of the originals and it is mainly statues or monuments that are mostly in the park itself. It was designed as an extension of the Eiffel Tower in the form of French gardens. But its vocation is essentially educational and each statue is accompanied by an explanatory sign. Finally, we could even say that it is in the same spirit as the famous Parc Oriental de Maulévrier in Maine et Loire, which reproduces a Japanese garden and architectural elements.
A touristic Paris ?
However, unlike Maulévrier Park, Tiandu Cheng Park is far from attracting tourists in need of travel! It is more about walkers coming from the neighboring districts, possibly from Hangzhou for a Sunday outing.
In fact, the only real business there seems to be wedding photography. But once again, couples do not come here because they cannot travel, but simply and above all because, in the eyes of the Chinese, France is the land of lovers. Nothing could be more romantic than to pose in front of the Eiffel Tower, the Apollo basin or in a Queen’s carriage in a French garden! Even if it is difficult to understand why we have such a reputation as romantics – because in reality it turns out that in the end the Chinese are much more so than we are – we should rather be flattered and consider that this reputation is better to take than many others!
As for the shops and businesses in the Haussmanian part, it will be difficult to find a single souvenir shop, not even a key ring of the Eiffel Tower! However, it is interesting to note that an impressive number of educational centres for children have been set up, making the main artery the children’s avenue. From language and music schools to artistic or technological learning and tutoring institutions, parents have plenty of choice to stimulate and above all to make their children what is « national sport »: competitors.
Finally, Tiandu Cheng is only a district – or city if we refer to the European scale – like any other in today’s Chinese urban landscape. Today it is a district that has fully developed and the « ghost town » is far behind. Its only specificity is to combine housing and theme park, in a rather successful way because people find it pleasant to live there. This is a far cry from a kind of « Disney Park » where the inhabitants would live in a « fake » city for the simple pleasure of throwing it away or to simulate a life for that matter. At most when you walk around it you feel a vague resemblance, an « air of Paris », but the district has all the Chinese specificities, starting with the fans of the air conditioners on the facades – essential in the climate of Hangzhou -, the clothes drying in the windows – unthinkable in Paris and even less in a Haussmanian district! – and of course the people who wear pajamas – not even in dreams in Paris!