I went to Paris today. Which is to say that I went to Paris with Chinese Characteristics.
Which is to say that I didn’t actually go to Paris today.
In fact, I went to a suburb of Hangzhou called Tianducheng, which is a ritzy area of town built as a replica of the French capital. I still don’t know what prompted the replica’s construction. But fake Paris certainly exists, and it just so happens to be on my doorstep. Which of course meant that I had to see it up-close, to know if indeed I could travel the world without leaving China, and if it was really up to snuff. There were photos online to prove it existed. Eiffel tower and all.
There’s more to the story of fake Paris, of course. As if the idea of fake Paris wasn’t enough motivation to hop on the subway and ride the jangly bus around the Hangzhou sprawl, I’d also heard that this Parisian copy was a ghost town. As in, cornrows of apartment complexes with no one inside. Nothing aside from well wishes and hopes of socialites deciding to settle down along the Champs Elysees. It seems to have been built to form a miniature community and possibly to satiate the love of classy European goods. I’d read online that this was a project that began in 2007 to create an exquisite and prestigious part of town to bask in. There were supposed to be tourists taking Eiffel Tower selfies. There were supposed to be thousands of residents. But instead…
I had to find out.
I went to Tianducheng with a friend of mine, and though we spotted the fake Eiffel Tower fairly quickly, we decided to go poke a chateau on a hill first and save the tower for last. We walked past farming fields with rice all in plots, and into a gated community/Paris theme park where men fished along a lake dotted with opulent French-style mansions. Stone lion head fountains in white marble, a giant yacht plopped dormant in a greenish lake, wrought-iron fences rusted along the edges…
“Are we still in China?” my friend asked.
I responded by singing a couple bars of “Aux Champs Elysees.”
We walked the perimeter of the lake, still trying to get to the chateau, which was an off-yellow. There was a replica of the fountain at Versailles nearby, but we didn’t want to pay the ticket. Instead, we sort of rammed into an area dubiously called “Love Post Office.” Love Post Office had barren confetti rasping along the concrete like tumbleweed and lonely horse-drawn carriages with the drivers slumped in the seats as no one stopped by for a ride. Couples dressed in wedding clothes posed by swings shaped like hearts and trees made of concrete–cracked until we could see the metal rod and plaster within. The whole area was surreal. As if we were on a movie set for a play we’d never meant to be cast in.
“Well, let’s go to the Tower, shall we?” I said. So we left the chateau, Love Post Office, and the “Paris Townlet” that was a tiny street meant to resemble Hunchback of Notre Dame-era Paris. The little community itself disappeared behind us, and we were facing what I think was meant to be the Champs Elysees. I say “I think” because there were no active shops, a definite lack of signs explaining things, and busts of horses that children had colored over with crayons. In front of the path, a fountain without water, depicting half horses, half fishes grimacing and baring their teeth. No water was in any of the fountains, which added to the eerie and foreboding atmosphere. Statues with laundry draped over them. Crème colored walkways without any pedestrians. What appeared to be cafes with boards put up behind the windows, painted to resemble little shops. As funny as I thought the whole scene was, I will admit that I felt a bit sad, too. So much time and effort put into being impressive, with no one in the end being impressed.
When at last we got close enough to the Eiffel Tower, we saw that it was surrounded by construction for what makers hoped to be a bustling shopping center. Half-enveloped by signage and then obscured slightly by smog, we had our boon: the fake Eiffel Tower. Shorter than the authentic one, and desperately empty and lacking attention. Save for fools like us.
All the same, we posed for some pictures, I took out some imitation Madelines for us to munch on, warbled more “Aux Champs Elysees” and more or less accepted the fact that western goods are always warped in some way when shipped overseas.
But I think what best sums up my feelings about fake Paris is this pair of shorts I saw hanging from a lantern.
True, the details were all copied faithfully for this lantern, but the reality of what makers hoped it would become was never met. The people never used it for its original purpose, the tourists (save for engaged couples hoping to score good Parisian wedding photos) never made the journey to even see it, and instead, it’s marked by a slow decay. Buildings around are already yellowed with tints of smog and disrepair. Cotton candy vendors perch at the entrance to the theme park. Noodle shops with their few loyal customers flicker their own, weaker lights along delicately shaped gazebos. The tiny population of Tianducheng clings to the details of Paris with Chinese Characteristics are obscured by everyday living–the laundry hanging out to dry in the dimmed City of Light.