Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Thames Town, ghost town

Straits Times: Sun, Apr 24

Shanghai: They call it Thames Town, or Taiwushi Xiaozhen in Chinese.

At the town's entrance, a man dressed in a scarlet tunic - a la a Buckingham Palace foot guard - peers at vehicles and people going in and out of the leafy enclave.

Not that there are many arrivals to this slice of England, just a 10-minute drive from the end of Shanghai's Line 9 subway that extends to the city's south-western suburbs.

Hardly any shop along 'High Street', 'Gower Street' and 'Oxford Street' is open. One is greeted instead by chains and padlocks, empty spaces and dusty windows.

The only shops that appear to be open are a handful of cafes and small convenience stores.

Thames is one of nine satellite towns in Shanghai assigned a theme to give them an identity and make them attractive. Others include an Amsterdam clone - complete with canals, windmills and a giant bronze clog - and a Scandinavian town with a statue of the Little Mermaid.

Dreamt up by former Shanghai mayor Huang Ju a decade ago, these settlements have attracted criticism from the get-go for their wholesale import of Western styles.

One by one, they were completed from 2005, but have since languished and still stand today as monuments to poor planning.

While they have proven attractive to homebuyers, they have also turned out to be virtual ghost towns: The rich buy second or third homes in these towns, but many do not live in them or even rent their property out.

With few investment options and a lot of money sloshing around, many rich Chinese usually bank their money in assets like houses as a hedge against inflation.

In Thames, for instance, only half of the 1,600 luxurious villa homes are occupied, a real estate agent estimates.

The waste of housing resources is made more galling, considering the growing demand for affordable housing in the city from young couples and migrant workers.

It is also a waste considering how the towns were built on formerly fertile farmland, writes City University of Hong Kong academic Charlie Xue.

The irony is that the blueprint for these new Western satellite towns was drafted 10 years ago with the goal of taking the burden of housing Shanghai's growing population off the overcrowded city centre.

'From this point of view, these new areas are a big failure since they don't offer adequate housing,' says Mr Harry den Hartog, a Dutch urban planner who has written a book on Shanghai's new towns.

'They don't match the demand. Also, shops and other facilities are often lacking, so urbanity and liveliness are missing.'

At Ruth Bar, one of a handful of cafes in Thames, there are days when not a single customer walks in, says waiter Chen Gang, 25, who used to have a co-worker but is now alone.

'In summer, we can make ends meet. But in winter, we make a loss,' he says.

During the day, some Chinese tourists do drop by. Last Monday, The Sunday Times spotted dozens of elderly visitors in Thames, marvelling at symbols of Englishness, from a sculpture of the late Princess Diana to red telephone booths.

'It's a good place to visit as there are no entrance fees,' says tour guide Wang Yumei, 40.

These Western towns have also become stomping grounds for couples taking wedding pictures. They no longer need to go overseas to take photos against a backdrop of Gothic spires and grassy river banks with weeping willows.

At least 20 photo studios have rented spaces in Thames to provide changing rooms for the brides and grooms.

The empty streets suit the photographers just fine as they can get on with their snaps without being disrupted.

Likewise, not all residents mind that the town is quiet. Says 60-year-old housewife Xu Zhiyin: 'The scenery is beautiful and the whole place is very serene. I love it here.'


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