China’s replicas of Western towns

From the series Shanzhai © Cian Oba-Smith

Cian Oba-Smith explores the phenomenon of Chinese copycat architecture

Over the last fifteen years, a large number of settlements have been built on the outskirts of cities like Shanghai and Hangzhou in China, to replicate Western metropolises. In one, Venice’s canals are reconstructed between Venetian-style buildings. In another, the Eiffel Tower has been reproduced in the centre of a network of mock Parisian streets. Elsewhere, the Western features are more subtle; the odd red phone box or Roman pillar nestled among Mandarin street signs.

“China has this culture of imitating and taking inspiration from different places around the world,” says Cian Oba-Smith. The photographer explored this copycat architecture, for his series Shanzhai. “I wanted to look specifically at Western copies of architecture, which have been imported to China,” he continues.  Shanzhai explores this phenomenon in the wider context of globalisation, and the resulting collision of cultures.

From the series Shanzhai © Cian Oba-Smith

When these Western-style settlements were built fifteen years ago, they were deemed failures due to a lack of demand, and, as a result, many became ghost towns. “China has a habit of building for prospect instead of demand,” explains Oba-Smith. “They know the homes will soon be filled because the population is so large.”

As China’s urban middle class has experienced incredible growth – now totaling more than 500 million people – many of these settlements have flourished and become home to tens of thousands of residents. But in Oba-Smith’s images, a sense of their emptiness is retained – there are few people wandering the streets or enjoying activities outdoors, which reflects the lack of culture within these mock towns. “With some architecture, there’s substance beyond the facade of the building,” explains Oba-Smith. “But it felt like these towns were more about the way they looked from the outside.”

The stillness of the work is also the result of Oba-Smith’s inability to speak Mandarin, resulting in a lack of engagement with his subjects. “When you look at the pictures, it does feel as though there’s a distance or separation between me and the people I’m photographing,” he says.

From the series Shanzhai © Cian Oba-Smith

However, of the people Oba-Smith did speak to, he was struck by their lack of interest in the town’s mock-architecture. “I was interested in why people would want to live in these places,” he says. “But, I don’t know how aware they were of the fact that they use mock European architecture. People didn’t think it was at all odd to live there.”

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From the series Shanzhai © Cian Oba-Smith
From the series Shanzhai © Cian Oba-Smith
From the series Shanzhai © Cian Oba-Smith
From the series Shanzhai © Cian Oba-Smith
From the series Shanzhai © Cian Oba-Smith
From the series Shanzhai © Cian Oba-Smith
From the series Shanzhai © Cian Oba-Smith
From the series Shanzhai © Cian Oba-Smith
From the series Shanzhai © Cian Oba-Smith