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The Paris of the East

A man and his child passes by Tiandoucheng's fake Eiffeil Tower on his eletric moped.

“I first heard about fake Paris from a journalist friend. She put a pin on my Baidu Maps, a Chinese version of Google Maps. I forgot about it for about five or six months and then one day I turned on the app, remembered about fake Paris and thought, ‘Let’s just go,’ so I jumped on my electric scooter and went. Tiandoucheng is technically part of Hangzhou, a city of eight or nine million people. It was built, like a lot of other towns next to big cities, with the idea that the main city would grow out to them. And the copying of Paris was done to add extra value compared to other satellite cities and try to attract people. But it hasn’t really taken off and construction has stopped with the city only part finished.”

“The fake Eiffel Tower is the first thing you see when you arrive by road. I rarely speak to myself, but I remember saying out loud, ‘What the fuck is this?’ when I caught my first glimpse of it. The Eiffel Tower, surrounded by vegetable patches, with a big fence around it and a man in a guard hut at the bottom. The developers ran out of money to develop this area around the Eiffel Tower, so people started planting things there. They shouldn’t do it, but who cares – everyone knows the developers are not going to build any more any time soon. It’s one of the classic ‘grey areas’ in China: a place where entry is forbidden but nobody will do anything to stop you going in.”

“The first thing that your brain does when you get to a new place is try to find reference points. That doesn’t work in fake Paris because things which seem familiar are out of order. There’s this avenue called the ‘Champs-Élysées’, for example, which is totally out of place right by the Eiffel Tower.”


“If you look up, Tiandoucheng looks like Paris. If you look at street level, it’s China. There are no French restaurants, no bakeries, no coffee shops. And no rush hour. It’s just really quiet and calm, with very little traffic. There are lots of weddings though. The city employs dedicated photographers – you pay about 50 yuan (£5) for a session and have your photo taken in front of this weird mix of fake Paris and huge towers in the background.”

“Some of the town’s residents are locals, they were living here before there was much here. They went from living in a rural area to living in a Haussmann-style apartment. It’s not the crappiest Chinese construction I’ve seen. These six-storey buildings seem quite robust on the outside. It’s less good on the inside – there are no lifts, for example.”

“These two guys, Mr Yang and Mr Dai, grew up in the area and they’re the only two full-time gardeners in the city. This is a shot of them working on a two-kilometre-long strip of park along the ‘Champs-Élysées’. They have to plant, clean and do everything on their own. They are paid 2,000 yuan a month, which is about £200, which is not that bad for China. They are really happy. They were telling me that they have been reading books to know how to get the right plants growing for fake Paris. And they like living in a 19th century French building.”

“In some streets the residents hang their laundry everywhere, using the fake Parisian streetlights as stands. In real Paris it’s illegal to hang your laundry outdoors. The washing makes the scene completely surreal: it’s not Paris any more because you’ve got just a massive blanket in the middle of the street and you have to walk under it.”

“Square dancing is massive in China. Morning and night, whether it’s raining or snowing, people put tents up and they put weird Chinese pop music on and just square dance. But urban space is very limited and in Hangzhou there have been big problems: there were too many square dancing rallies going on and the music was too loud and the residents were going crazy. They started a war with the dancers; they got hold of some speakers that are used to broadcast messages during earthquakes and shouted at them to go away and stop dancing. Here in fake Paris this couple can just put music on, dance outside and it’s not going to not bother anyone. They love living here because of the space. They’ve set up a restaurant together, ‘Little Sichuan’, and they asked me to tell everyone about it.”

“This sculpture [above] is modelled on the statue of Apollo in a fountain at the Château of Versailles. It’s new but it looks 200 years old – it’s been pre-weathered. It’s pretty good work. The designs aren’t always very precise. There aren’t enough fingers on some of the hands and some of the arms are too long. And most of the fountains are never on: I guess turning them on would cost too much money.”

A theatre sits abandoned at the end of Tiandoucheng’s copy of the Versailles Gardens.

“The theatre in this park based on Versailles seems to have been abandoned. It’s quite eerie. It doesn’t even pop up on the map. You can walk in behind the scenes, there’s no one stopping you. It’s a classic grey area.”

“The people in Tiandoucheng seem quite happy. This man is doing water calligraphy, something you see everywhere in China. People use giant brushes to write out poems on the ground: it’s a sort of legal graffiti because it just dries out in the sun. Despite the extraordinary surroundings, life goes on as normal. And, fascinatingly, many of the people I’ve spoken to over my visits don’t know that their town is actually modelled on Paris.”

“Tiandoucheng has been called a ghost town in the past, but I wouldn’t call it that any more. But it is a symptom of the Chinese slowdown over the last couple of years. It just hit the point at which they couldn’t find enough people to live there. If they had built it just a few years later it would have been 100 percent unoccupied. It looks like Hangzhou isn’t going to grow out to Tiandoucheng, like other cities in the south have grown towards their satellites. The city just isn’t going that way. But it doesn’t show that China is losing its position, just that it’s slowing down. It’s doing so with serenity. And no one in Tiandoucheng at least seems to be panicking about the fact that their town is pretty much half empty.”

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