I traveled with my collaborator, with whom I am now working on a film and book. On our trip we encountered three Eiffel Towers, two Tower Bridges, two World Trade Centers, and Hallstatt, an entire UNESCO protected Austrian town.

As well as looking at these towns we also explored China's relationship to copying in other fields. This meant we visited the Dafen Oil Painting Village (where 60% of the world's fake masters are produced), many shanzhai selling stores, an abandoned Disneyland-esque theme park, and we also interviewed Ai Weiwei.

We have lots of visual research here: http://ackerthompson.tumblr.com/

and we are currently promoting our project on indiegogo: http://igg.me/at/ackerthompson

Also follow us on twitter @AckerThompson

Comments: 623 • Responses: 34  • Date: 

gregi186 karma

According to you, is this art? Is there place for creativity and imagination? My first thought is "awful" - not the execution, the idea. What's yours?

AckerThompson279 karma

I don't consider the towns themselves to be art. I think my first reaction was one of amazement. The sheer audacity to build an entire fake town. It reminded me of different fiction - from The Prisoner to The Truman Show.

Ironically some of the most creative/amusing parts of the towns are when things are copied incorrectly. Such as red British phone boxes in an Austrian town, or when researchers clearly didn't do their jobs: http://imgur.com/M3pXu1A

But in China the concept of copying is considered an art. They have a very different philosophy to the west. So, although I think a lot of Chinese people do view these towns with skepticism, I don't think their feelings are as strong as those of westerners.

Leumas16121 karma

What are the purposes of these?

AckerThompson236 karma

They are the result of a lot of contributing factors. A lot of the people we interviewed told us that the traditional Chinese home, the siheyuan (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siheyuan), is no longer practical for the amount of people who are moving to the cities. It seems that given the huge number of people who are moving to the cities and becoming increasingly rich in the past few years they want a way to express their new found wealth. From what we were told, during the Mao era the arts and architecture were suppressed - meaning that when the government became more relaxed about construction the architects simply didn't exist in the number that were needed. Hence they have turned to Western concepts of architecture for times of prosperity, as it offers them a ready-made language.

But there are many reasons that seem to have all converged. Historically China does not have the same relationship to copying as the West. Copying is considered an art form in its own right.

ryuker1677 karma

Actually it's much more a fascination with other cultures. Few Chinese can afford to travel so visiting a local copy is the most obvious solution. Women want a proposal in front of the Effie's tower like any other western woman.

I rarely met a culture more interested in other places than the Chinese....but alas....a plane ticket to Europe is a small fortune.

AckerThompson83 karma

Yes, this too. There seems to be a feeling that Western goods are better than Chinese goods. An example of this is how some Apple products in China change the etching on the back that normally reads 'Designed by Apple in California. Assembled in China,' to just 'Designed by Apple in California.'

AckerThompson15 karma

A great book on this is Original Copies by Bianca Bosker.

deathandsandwiches67 karma

Any cities that stood out in any way?

AckerThompson128 karma

Hallstatt See in the Guangdong Province was impressive in its audacity. It is a copy of Hallstatt in Austria, the original town only has 800 residents and the copy they are making (it is pretty much finished but residents won't move in until September this year) is much bigger - they have continued the housing outwards from the carbon copied core. Also when we spoke to the head of marketing about the town he said that if it was a success then they plan to make more of them across China.

Thames Town near Shanghai was possibly the most convincing. Not so much the main public areas (which features a copied church from Bristol - very popular as a backdrop for newly weds, we must have seen about 100 couples in wedding attire whilst we were there), but the residential areas. They are private and so getting into them was difficult, but once inside you really could have been in England.

Edit: grammar

AckerThompson75 karma

Although Tianducheng has a very impressive Eiffel Tower http://ackerthompson.tumblr.com/image/44794489376

(plus this is an example of the residential streets of Thames Town http://ackerthompson.tumblr.com/image/44802814133)

Hermdesecrator95 karma

That legitimately looks like the street I live on. Colour me impressed, China.

sauceofconcern41 karma

No wheely bins, FAKE!

H1landr62 karma

Is that Jewelry store really called 'Blood Diamond Jewelry"?

AckerThompson55 karma

Yes! A lot of the signage on these ghost towns is either faked to look like existing brands, or is for brands that they have invented.

sassychupacabra60 karma

I just wanted to say it's really cool you're studying this - seems like growing pains of a nation trying desperately to modernize without the tools to do it naturally. Just seeing the difference in philosophy is amazing to me. China seems to have a heavy history of just lifting what they need, including stuff like bullet train designs. There are replica Apple stores popping up selling counterfeits, with the interiors perfectly lifted from legitimate Apple stores... what other instances like this did you see? Copied stuff on a smaller scale than entire towns?

AckerThompson60 karma

In Shenzhen there are huge 10 storey computer stores that sell countless fakes and knock offs. But the most interesting thing about them is that they 'improve' on the the originals by adding features, or in some cases they release fakes before the original has been released. For example we were offered an iPhone 5S in one store.

littlelimesauce8 karma

Since the 5 and 5S would presumably look the same, couldn't they just add an S to a knockoff 5?

AckerThompson13 karma

Well, as shanzhai go, this was one of the worst we saw. It felt as though they had removed most of the electronics - it was incredibly light.

WhisperShift46 karma

Have you ever read The Captive Mind by Czeslaw Milosz? It talks about how the writers, artists, philosophers, and other intelligentsia of Eastern Europe under Stalinism came to buy into the rhetoric. These copy-towns reminded me of a part in the second chapter "Looking to the West". It talks about, in part, how the central control of science and art (and the Center's need for it to match party rhetoric) eliminates the creativity and small discoveries of the curious scientist and experimental struggling artist. This creates a certain sterility and lack of innovation, which is why Stalinist USSR had to copy so much from the West.

Concerning science:

If the impetus to perfect and use new discoveries has lost none of its drive, the credit lies with the West. ... Russia, copying Western models of automobiles, airplanes, jet engines, television sets, atom bombs and submarines, and such things as radar and penicillin, has now entered the race. The youngest generation in Eastern europe, raised in the worshiping of Russia, is beginning to believe that she is taking the foremost place in the realm of science and technology... This supposition seems to be refuted by the purely practical aims of contemporary Russian science for, as we know, the greatest discoveries are perfected in the course of long disinterested work on the part of many scientists and often bear no immediate results. It seems to be refuted, as well, by the insistence with which propaganda attributes most discoveries to the Russians even while they copy American construction, from bridges to motors, in the minutest detail.

And more concerning art:

More than the West imagines, the intellectuals of the East look to the West for something... The something they look for is a great new writer, a new social philosophy, an artistic movement... The people of the East have already become accustomed to thinking of art and society on an organizational and mass scale...
By destroying all experimentation in art, the Center confined its applied art to a clumsy imitation of Western applied art which, however, is constantly renewed under the influence of experimental easel painting... applied art, cut off from its roots, is bound to prove sterile.

This is talking, obviously, about Stalinist USSR, but I think some of it still applies. USSR probably had stricter control of art, architecture, and science, because of its focus on Realism and a practical central-controlled approach to science, but maybe not.

Copying is seen as an art form in China, as you said, but also when you have such constraints on creativity you (arguably) have to rely on copying from those who have created from a more liberal mix of imitation and innovation in order to adapt to new problems.

I'm still reading the book, so this is probably me regurgitating what I'm taking in, but your work reminded me of it.

AckerThompson16 karma

Thank you very much. That is really interesting, I will track down the book.

cfreak239935 karma

I've seen lots of places in US suburbia that make areas that looks like "unnamed English village". While they aren't exact replicas do you see that as being different?

AckerThompson65 karma

This sounds similar in a lot of respects. The USA is probably the closest country to China in the respect of huge growth over a relatively short time period - it too has ended up with a lot of copied architecture. Umberto Eco wrote a fantastic book in the 1960s called Travels In Hyperreality, it details his travels across America looking at their relationship to simulations and simulacra.

flapanther3378114 karma

I haven't read the book, but as an American I would guess it's more due to people here wanting to be different. We don't like the idea of having 2,000 developments built using the exact same house, so we build different developments with different themes. But we're not straight up ripping off an exact copy. As you quoted one of the architects on your page - there's nothing wrong with taking from the same well, just not the same bucket.

AckerThompson24 karma

Yes I agree. My comparison was more to areas such as Las Vegas and Celebration, than to normal residential places.

adkhapa33 karma

need more pics.

AckerThompson44 karma

There are pics on the tumblr. But here are some:

Hallstatt See, a copy of the historic UNESCO protected town in Austria (this is a video - the sound was recorded on location, they constantly filled the streets with Austrian music): https://vimeo.com/60845924

Wonderland, an abandoned themepark that was meant to mimic Disneyland - it is now occupied by farmers who grow crops on the land: http://ackerthompson.tumblr.com/image/44789584138

Dafen Oil Painting Village: http://ackerthompson.tumblr.com/image/44787822226

Thames Town,near Shanghai: http://ackerthompson.tumblr.com/image/44802706485

starwobble22 karma

I saw (briefly) the fake Disneyland from our moving tour bus when I was in Beijing with my school's orchestra! It was pretty eerie. Our tour guide didn't say a word about, even though we passed it twice.

AckerThompson47 karma

I think it is a source of local embarrassment. Plus when we visited the farmers that now live there were really not happy with us looking around. Eventually they released their dogs and we had to make a very quick exit.

dberis20 karma

Why are these towns being constructed while so many ghost towns are rotting away?

AckerThompson43 karma

I think it is precisely that the ghost towns are rotting away that makes the companies create these themed towns. By offering something unique (in its non-uniqueness) they are easier to sell.

willeatyoualive14 karma

Do they try to adopt the original way of life of the town that they've copied in some fashion? Do they serve food you might find there or show movies you might find there or anything like that?

AckerThompson19 karma

Good question. They do attempt to copy certain cultures, but often the reproductions diverge from the originals. In Thames Town they regularly have British themed fairs, with British foods, and in Tianducheng they have the same but with French cuisine and wine. Bu the permanent features tend to be less successful. For example in Thames Town there used to be a Fish and Chips shop (it was a direct copy of The Cobb Gate Fish Bar from Dorset), however it shut down fairly soon due to lack of customers. Although the owner of the original shop had already tried to force them to close it.

hansjens4712 karma

in your opinion, are these "copy towns" better than huge apartment complexes or mass amounts of identical houses (which are the realistic alternatives, right?)

AckerThompson33 karma

The copy towns appeal to quite wealthy buyers, they are not cheap places to live. So they don't really replace the huge apartment complexes - instead they exist as a form of escapism for the wealthy from the increasing number of huge high rises that are being built (many of which are completely empty).

agespots9 karma

They all look so empty. Are they mainly used for photoshoots? I recently watched an excellent piece on the ghost cities in China ... They seem everywhere. What do you think when you encounter them? It seems nonsensical. Like the biggest property bubble in history!

AckerThompson23 karma

A lot of them are only 50% or so full. Many people buy them as an investment or as holiday homes.

The ghost towns are vast. Whilst traveling between big cities we would just see endless tower blocks, all unoccupied. The property bubble is completely unprecedented, the government has taken some action to make these new properties more affordable, but it doesn't seem to making things much better.

emeraldpity9 karma

Why was the Disney like park abandoned?

AckerThompson24 karma

A number of reasons. The local mayor changed, and he wasn't too keen on the idea, and I think the construction company hit hard times. Ironically it is now becoming a bit of an alternative tourist attraction.

TheShroomHermit9 karma

You encountered three Eiffel Towers; do the Chinese have as intense a love affair with all things french as the Japanese do?

AckerThompson12 karma

It was definitely used as the symbol for Europe and also for romance. The one in Tianducheng is 1/3rd scale - which is actually still really big. There is another in Shenzhen as part of the Window Of The World themed park, although it is in a park and not residential it is still tall enough to become part of the skyline: http://imgur.com/iMWbL0F

Were you aware of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paris_syndrome ?

Well_Raise_My_Rent9 karma

This seems like something that 99% invisible would have interest in. Have you been in contact with those fine folks?

AckerThompson5 karma

No, just googled them. Sounds very relevant, I will get in touch with them tomorrow. Thanks a lot.

ahbleza8 karma

Do they support the use of these locations as cheaper backdrops for shooting feature films? Do they have any of the rental equipment and skilled locals for such a shoot?

AckerThompson21 karma

A lot of them are used for photo shoots. We didn't see any being used for filming although I think the developers would be keen on the idea. We spoke to a model who was doing a fashion shoot in one of the towns and she explained that they use the towns as any Western connotations help to sell products in China, and filming there is obviously much cheaper than flying to the real locations.

Edit: grammar

AckerThompson6 karma

Thanks for the questions guys. I need to leave now, but I will be back tomorrow to answer anymore questions that are raised. If you want to follow us on twitter @AckerThompson, then you can ask us there too. Thanks again.

theancientfuture6 karma

What was the inspiration for your own investigation of these strange, wondrous, terrifying sites?

AckerThompson12 karma

As artists we have both been interested in contemporary copying as parts of our own individual practices. I had made a series of works based around Dafen: http://pjdthompson.co.uk/index.php/project/copyrights/ and Seb, my collaborator, has done a lot of work based around architecture: http://sebastianacker.com/project/half-a-bedroom-on-wheels/ When we saw a news story about these towns in Spiegel, we decided that it was something that we really wanted to see for ourselves. Another strand of our research is to visit the original places to see how much these places perform themselves - through preservation, restoration and reenactments.

ballet_bunny6 karma

Have you ever seen some of the German copied architecture in Brazil? Mainly in Blumenau, Santa Catarina?

AckerThompson10 karma

No, this sounds fascinating though. There is a German town near Shanghai called Anting, it was designed by Albert Speer (the son of Hitler's favourite architect).

Alfredo_BE6 karma

The Ghost Town pictures in Guangdong Province, are those of the New South China shopping mall?

I'd love to go on a similar trip myself. Did you require a local guide? Or was it all pretty much straightforward?

AckerThompson12 karma

No, I don't think it is. We couldn't find the names of many of the ghost towns we visited.

We didn't have a guide as such, but we encountered many English speaking people on our trip who were very keen to help. Quite often they would write us notes in Mandarin that we used to ask for directions, etc. We were amazed at how friendly everyone was to us, and how helpful they were - even security guards that were protecting some of the ghost towns.

the_obs5 karma

Did you visit the copy of the Swiss town of Interlaken, to the North-East of Shenzhen in the Yantian district?

AckerThompson3 karma

No we didn't, do you have any photos?

Nf1nk5 karma

How do you feel the Chinese copy towns compare to the American copy towns. Last year I found this one in Florida http://goo.gl/maps/Q15Hw The real estate prices for small condos in this town blew my mind and I live in SO CAL

AckerThompson9 karma

I can't quite see what the town is a copy of?

YetiTerrorist2 karma

Who exactly gets to move into these cities? Is it difficult to get the opportunity to move into one? Also, does everyone in the country know about them?

AckerThompson8 karma

I think the only barrier is cost. They are aimed at the newly middle and upper classes. I doubt they have waiting lists as many of them are only half filled. Given that there are copy towns near most of the major cities I would think that most people are aware of them.

dialup19842 karma

I am very curious, is there a photo album to.accompany this trip you will be postin online? And more importantly, is there a replica of new orleans?

AckerThompson8 karma

There are several photos at http://ackerthompson.tumblr.com/ We will be updating this constantly. As far as I am aware there isn't a New Orleans, but give it time...

Ooer2 karma

Do you have any proof to verify your identity? Thank you.

AckerThompson5 karma

I have added a post to our Tumblr page

dattuvsho2 karma

Are they smaller to match their size? Or are they complete replicas?

AckerThompson3 karma

In most cases they are the same size. But the Eiffel Towers for example are 1/3rd size - which is still very big.