China's Eerie Faux-European Ghost Towns

Located near Beijing, the mock-Alpine village of "Spring Legend" has houses, restaurants, shops—and few people. 
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The town of Spring Legend, modeled after a European village, has struggled to attract permanent residents. (Phoebe Storm)

BEIJING — There’s a town on the outskirts of Beijing that might just be the strangest you’ll ever see. The main street looks as if it was based on a child’s crayon drawing—a riotous palette of pinks, blues, and oranges—and the residents are frighteningly still. In fact, most aren’t even real. Instead, the town features such sights as a pair of petrified pigeons, yellow phone booths, and a statue of a sea dog gazing from a bridge.

Welcome to “Spring Legend,” a mock-Alpine town located in Huairou, a designated green-belt district about 35 miles from Beijing. The town has existed for about five years, but it lacks something fundamental: residents.

Spring Legend has the feel of a dream come true. Entering the town’s German restaurant—outside of which sits a statue of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill enjoying a bronze cigar—tables are set with fine china, wine goblets, silver cutlery, and linen, all neatly laid out for diners who never arrive. Then, a waitress dressed as a Bavarian fräulein appears and inquires how many there will be for lunch.

The town’s motto is “The Beautiful Legend From the Alps” and indeed, compared to the livability problems of Chinese cities, Spring Legend has a pleasant environment.

“We named it Spring Legend because it’s close to the river and has a small creek running through it,” explains Liu Xinhu, the chairman of Ding Xiu Zhi Ye (Spring Legend Properties). “It’s extremely beautiful in the spring, too.”

The town was conceived back in 2007, towards the end of a period of rapid development in Beijing that led to an increase in pollution and, correspondingly, a renewed interest among city-dwellers in a serene environment. “Many people wanted to ‘return to the countryside,’” recalls Liu, referring to a Cultural Revolution-era program that sent urban youths to rural China in order to work on farms.

Spring Legend is empty for one simple reason: During the week, hardly anyone lives there. An estimated 80 percent of the town’s homeowners also have apartments in Beijing, and, according to Liu, the general occupancy rate in Spring Legend is only about 60 to 70 percent. Multiple-home ownership among China’s rich is not uncommon; University at Albany professor Youqin Huang has estimated that 15 percent of urban households in the country own two or more houses.

The nature of property ownership has changed greatly in China. Fifteen years ago, state workers (who then comprised much of the population) were assigned basic accommodation. But today, home ownership has become so important that young men struggle to find a girlfriend if they do not own their own home. Buying a place, however, is difficult: Average salaries in Beijing top out at about 4,500 RMB per month (around $750), while the cost of an apartment in the city center is around 43,000 to 52,000 RMB per square meter.

Why has China gone mad for housing? With strict capital controls and a state-controlled stock exchange that is volatile and risky, the tangible reassurance of evergreen property has made it a “fungible commodity,” in the words of Anne Stevenson-Yang, co-founder of Beijing-based equities analysis firm J Capital Research. She says that homes are usually left empty in order to avoid any depreciation in value.

“Renovation costs are very high, so it makes no sense to rent if you are seeking capital appreciation,” she explains via e-mail. “Remember that apartments here are sold bare, without flooring, ceilings, lighting fixtures or wall tiles. They all need to be installed, adding at least 20 percent to the cost [and] people expect to ... custom fit the unit.”

This means that even in successful towns like Spring Legend—where a unit costs an average of 16,000 RMB (about $2,500) per square meter, roughly a third the cost of a typical apartment in central Beijing—the streets and houses remain lifeless. The owners, says Bianca Bosker, author of Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China, are “dreaming of what they’ll do with the riches they imagine they’ll get when they one day sell them.” The likely answer? Buy more property. However, “Given how many people have hatched the same ‘get rich quick’ real-estate idea, and how many of China’s gated communities stand empty, betting on real estate looks increasingly risky.”

***

Spring Legend is hardly the only city of its kind. There's also Thames Town, outside Shanghai, which is a $300 million British-style residential complex developed by since-incarcerated Shanghai Communist Party boss Chen Liangyu. And north of Beijing in Hebei Province is Jackson Hole, a wind-swept Wild West replica featuring neighborhoods called Moose Creek, Route 66, and Aspen Land. When developers previewed Jackson Hole in 2003, buyer interest was intense. The homes “sold out in record time,” says Oregon-based designer Allison Smith, who helped create the settlement. Early investors who purchased an “American villa” for around a quarter-million dollars in 2006 have seen their dreams “triple in value,” she estimates.

A bust of Winston Churchill outside a restaurant in Spring Legend, a mock-European community near Beijing. (Phoebe Storm)

Jackson Hole bucks the trend: It is a living community, a mix of older families and retirees drawn by what Smith agrees is a serendipitous confluence of factors—co-operative developers, clever marketing, and a great location. But Smith fears there’s a downside to the speculation. “At this point, the Chinese are in such a rush to buy everything, it may not hold its value down the line,” she says. “Jackson Hole doesn’t have that problem; people want to stay there. People want to live there. We've done something positive—it’s not just for the money."

Not every fake European village is so successful. Luodian New Town, also known as North European New Town, is a development in Shanghai’s suburban Baoshan district supposedly based on the historic Swedish town of Sigtuna. According to Bosker, “its foreign architects [Swedish firm Sweco] failed to take into account Chinese lifestyles or customs—specifically, the principles of feng shui.” The developers at first banned any remodeling but, as homes failed to sell, they caved. On visiting, Bosker “found the neighborhood to be a mess of construction, as homebuyers eagerly carved up the houses to fix their feng shui.”

Anting German Town, a failed experiment located about 20 miles outside Shanghai, is another example. “The [Chinese wanted] half-timbered buildings and medieval romance,” Der Spiegel explained in a 2011 postmortem. “But the architecture firm Speer thought it knew better and built a modern German residential quarter [where] nobody wants to live.” The truth, as the article admits, is more complicated than just aesthetics—the town lacked the life support of proper infrastructure.

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Robert Foyle Hunwick is a media consultant and editor at large for BeijingCream.com.

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