A sudden turn jolts me awake. I rub my eyes and glance up and down the subway car. Only a few passengers remain. The quiet is immersive and almost unbearable. Guess that’s what happens when your daily commute involves squeezing onto one of the busiest metros in the world. You get used to the cacophony. But this is suburban Shanghai. No, even farther than that. End of the line. I gaze out the window and see abandoned construction projects jutting out of the murky haze. Do any souls still bother themselves out here? Line 9 must be the ghost train with spirits riding back and forth; in and out of the city to pass the time. Nothing could dampen my mischievous grin, though. Hostel gossip told me that a diamond in the rough exists out here. I intend to uncover it.
Thames Town. Has a nice ring to it, don’t you think? However, any keen traveler will have surmised that I am about as far from the River Thames as one could be. China has its own legendary waterways, but sadly the Thames prefers cobblestone streets and warm ales. This dilemma is what inspired the Shanghai Planning Commission as the 21st century dawned. We can’t all go to England, so why not build a little bit of England here? And not just England. German, Spanish, Italian, and even Canadian towns were planned. The nine towns were to be called “Songjiang New City” and be an international showcase. Well, that was the plan.
The train grinds to a halt and a loud buzzer meets me. “End of the line. All passengers must exit now.” I toss my passenger bag over my shoulder and say a silent goodbye to whatever spirits linger. Better get going. Still have a couple of miles to walk and the day is half over. Actually, maybe I’ll just take a taxi…
Hey, look, I’m already here! Chastise me for my laziness but the taxi driver was a pleasant companion. I asked him about the English town and how he felt about the “Songjiang New City”. Though the idea of visiting Europe so close to his home was appealing, the driver mentioned that the millions of yuan financing the project would be better served towards initiatives for the poor or cleaning up the increasingly polluted air. This is a sentiment echoed by many in China where the government officers often focus more on their own careers and making China pretty to outside investors than on the needs of the many. Every marvelous country has its dark underbelly, I suppose. We wished each other well and went our separate ways. Hopefully one day our paths will cross again under a brighter Chinese sun.
Where is everybody? I continue walking past the gated entrance down a windy path that has the same effect as a golden brick road. The quiet is unnerving, to say the least, but I haven’t quite made it to the actual town section yet. There! A man is standing next to a hedge in the distance. I begin to walk a bit faster, yet the closer I get the more I realize something is wrong. The man is not moving. Where’s Aslan when you need him? I survey the scene around the stone tableau and see even more frozen figures. My head begins filling with otherworldly explanations. Perhaps visitors stay too long and become stuck permanently? Maybe the figures come alive at night? Silly, I know. I arrive in front of the statue and laugh, noticing the plaques explaining the situation. I am assured that the town isn’t cursed, but the actual explanation is rather odd. It is a very recognizable face, after all (see James Bond photo).
“My head begins filling with otherworldly explanations. Perhaps visitors stay too long and become stuck permanently? Maybe the figures come alive at night?”
To add even more English flavor to the atmosphere, statues of famous Brits populate the area. Harry Potter, Winston Churchill, and of course James Bond are the most majestic. I quickly come to the realization that I will never have a statue here and sigh. Maybe a replica of a rural Arkansas town is next on the developer’s list? I somehow doubt it. Anyways, I begin to see REAL people in the distance towards a cluster of stone buildings and am off again. Coming around a corner I am shocked to discover what Chinese citizens’ actual reasons are for visiting this place. Let’s just say love is in the air (see Newlywed photo).
Turns out Thames Town is wedding photo central! Eager-eyed lovebirds wander about the cobblestone streets snapping a picture on every possible bench and near every possible floral arrangement. I cannot be any more out of place. People glance at me confused as to my purpose here. I stare back at them. “You’re the ones holding giant teddy bears, you know.” I continue my stroll towards what looks to be a coffee shop. Or perhaps they serve blood? Hard to tell with a name like this (see Twilight Club photo).
I rest my case. I admit, I have not read the Twilight series, so I had better stray from making unsubstantiated claims on its quality. Despite that, I have a feeling that this “club” would not be my cup of tea (which is “London Fog” by the way, if you’re taking notes). It looks pretty empty anyways. That’s the strangest thing. Thames Town has a plethora of buildings but it seems to have hardly anyone to fill them. I get the feeling the newlyweds don’t live here. Though, as I comb the alleyways eager for the next weird wonder, I sort of wish I did.
Of course, an English town is incomplete without a church at the heart of it. And it must be beautiful. Though nowhere near the exquisiteness of a St. Paul’s, for a church still yet a baby in comparison, it is an enrapturing sight. I find myself surrounded by couples and tourists as well. This place makes for the best photos, after all! Near the front steps I see a woman who appears to have some level of authority. Luckily she speaks English better than I speak Mandarin.
“I have to ask, why aren’t there more people here?”
“Haha, you will have to ask the builders. (Thames Town) was originally supposed to house around 10,000 people, but not many Chinese citizens could afford it. Those that could afford it were just more comfortable in the city.”
“Has anyone made the move?”
“Some wealthy Chinese have bought units as an investment or second home. Really, only a handful of people live here, if you add those that work the shops.”
“Well, at least you get to see newlyweds every day?”
“I’m getting kind of sick of it, haha.”
I take one last look around and rest on a bench next to Churchill. I wonder what to make of this. Is it a valiant attempt at bridging cultures, or a cheap knockoff? The Shanghai-based architect Tong Ming believes:
“The way to live best is to eat Chinese food, drive an American car, and live in a British house.”
Or is it better to just be who you are? As China (especially Shanghai) becomes increasingly westernized, I wonder if it is for the best. The “grass is greener” mentality is a dangerous one that nearly always underwhelms. China has an exotic beauty and its people have an inner wisdom unlike any other culture in the world. China doesn’t need a European showcase to impress. Embrace the future but don’t forget your history, I say. With several more cities planned, it seems that the Planning Commission isn’t letting one ghost town stop it. Perhaps Barcelona Town or Toronto Town will have better luck.