A few years ago, on a chilly fall night in Beijing, I took a brief break from my pilgrimage through fake Versailles mansions to review flashcards with a 5-year-old Chinese boy.
Maybe because I'm a girl, or maybe because I was raised in the American Pacific Northwest, where it's almost fashionable to show disdain for fancy brands, but until that evening I'd never seen flashcards quite like these: Each had a picture of an expensive sedan or flashy hood ornament the boy had to match to its luxury carmaker. The key life skill this boy's parents wanted him to acquire was not learning ten-dollar words or national capitols, but distinguishing a "Laosi laisi" (Rolls Royce) from a "Falali" (Ferrari). And he was a total pro.
China has embarked on a country-wide "duplitecture" binge -- constructing massive communities that replicate the cities of Europe and the United States -- and I'd gone traveling through the country to understand why so many Chinese families, like the little boy's, had moved into picture-perfect recreations of Amsterdam, Paris, Orange County, Manhattan and even the White House.
Outsiders tend to dismiss these theme-towns as tacky architectural abominations, but for the Chinese homeowners living there, they are like portals to an upgraded lifestyle. These homes are at once isolated havens, enviable status symbols and places to enjoy Western comforts without living abroad.
My flashcard session with the discerning little boy was emblematic of a broader Chinese appetite for absorbing the tastes of the global elite -- an appetite that helps explain the popularity of China's theme-towns (though many have also remained empty ghost towns).
In some sense, the newly affluent class of Chinese are doing what moneyed people everywhere are wont to do: snap up trophies from far-off places as proof of their sophistication and worldliness. In the American city of Houston, for example, wealthy Texans have constructed a conglomeration of fake Tuscan villas, Versailles-inspired mansions and oversized Tudor manors in the River Oaks neighborhood.
At the same time, this duplitecture has grown out of a remarkable inflection point in China's history, brought about by monumental economic and political reform. The previously closed-off country has opened up, exposing its people to a much greater array of tastes and granting them a new freedom to select any residential fantasy they can afford. A generation ago, families had to accept homes designed and assigned by the state. In the modern Chinese context, choice is a luxury, and one that the Chinese are embracing.
"The way to live best is to eat Chinese food, drive an American car and live in a British house," one homeowner told me, repeating a motto I heard on numerous occasions during my research in China. "That's the ideal life."
Even in the wake of Mao's brand of communism, which demonized landholders, China has once again embraced the mindset that property equals prestige. The home has become one of the most important elements defining status and class.
A resident of Galaxy Dante in Shenzhen said she prizes her Western-style home because it shows that she and her husband "have a social identity at the upper level."
"When I mention that I live here, people notice," she added. "They're impressed. That's definitely part of the appeal: It shows status."
Developers have stepped in to offer homes that they promise will convey this status. Compounds with names like Top Aristocrat, Majesty Manor and Eton Town relentlessly stress the link between "foreign" and "luxurious." Coming into contact with the architectural scenery of British-style Thames Town, one sales brochure claims, leads you into "the territory of the aristocracy, and a world of prestige." Paris-themed Tianducheng reminds buyers that the "European-style living space" that its homes offer is "one of the necessities of aristocratic life."
All that real estate propaganda seems to be working: The Chinese homeowners living in the theme-towns -- and those merely familiar with them -- affirm that the Western "look" enjoys real cachet. Tuscan and Tudor styles function just like luxury-brand logos on clothing, suggesting, at least to those who buy into it, an aura of wealth, worldliness and taste.
Wang Daoquan, an entrepreneur from Shaoxing living in Shanghai's Blue Cambridge community, told me he prefers his Western-style development because he believes European culture "stands for pleasure and a more artistic, refined lifestyle." His wife agreed that a recognizably European home "represents wealth, advancement and beauty," thanks to its "more high-class" forms. They were preparing to move into a British-looking development, complete with Winston Churchill statues and guards dressed like Buckingham Palace foot soldiers, even though the layout of the house itself wasn't very appealing.
In addition to providing upwardly mobile Chinese a way to show off their clout, these copycat towns also offer a place away from it all, just as the suburbs did for middle-class Americans fleeing cities in the 1950s. Some have bought country homes in the developments as a weekend escape from the smog of the city. And others, who have lived abroad, seek out these Italian, British or German-style developments for a more Western routine. Residents enjoy greater privacy than in more traditional Chinese enclaves, and they are bound by numerous rules meant to keep the European "feel" of the places intact.
"They want to live a more European life," a Thames Town property manager said of the area's residents. "They have high expectations."
These gated theme-towns, with their Fort Knox-style security, help to allay homeowners' anxieties about threats to their comfort and wealth. During my visits to these developments, I often had to pass through multiple security checkpoints, explain myself to numerous guards and expect that I would be under constant surveillance by dozens of security cameras.
Though homeowners want to be barricaded behind gleaming gold-tipped fences, the more high-end European and American-style developments also occupy an uneasy status in China -- precisely because they're so fenced off. Status symbols are meant to be seen, and these flashy homes that look like Versailles or Venice are impossible to miss. It's easy to envision them becoming a target for people frustrated by the ever-expanding income gap between China's haves and have-nots. Already, the Chinese government has tried to eradicate ads that "promote hedonism" by banning marketers from touting their products, be it houses or wine, as "luxury" or "high-class."
At Shanghai's sprawling Fontainebleau Villas, I spoke with security guards who chastised the wasteful homeowners within for frittering away money redoing their lawns, or pampering their pets.
Yet they still aspired to one day enjoy life in their own mini-France.
"Of course I'd move in and enjoy myself," one guard told me. "When you have so much money, you can waste it. I'd definitely waste it on all that, on enjoying myself."
This piece is an adapted excerpt from the book Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China.