Hence the Alpine approach. The mix of styles and scenery, Liu says, was intentional. In China, “European architecture is largely symbolized,” he observes. (This is especially true in historic cities like Tianjin, where Liu observed that “you see a lot of carriages being pulled by horses [and] that sort of thing”).
The developers sent a team of around a dozen people to Europe, where they spent time in villages and towns. Their findings encouraged focus on “lifestyle” rather than authenticity, with Liu trumpeting “a relaxed style of living environment … the idyllic, rather than the aristocratic side of Europe.”
In Spring Legend, for example, you’ll encounter plenty of benches—a piece of street furniture practically never encountered in Chinese cities—because “We wanted to encourage people to go out more.… [In China], people tend to stay in; in Europe, it’s different,” says Liu. But places to spend money are curiously absent—almost all the stores and bars are artificial. The Toy Shop, for example, has photographs of goodies plastered into its window, but peering through a broken pane reveals a concrete husk littered with debris—rubble, a bicycle, a workman’s leftover lunch.
Businesses take time to prosper, argues Liu: “We didn’t sell the storefronts to anyone yet, because we’re afraid once we do so, it will be out of our control and low-end shops will pervade, which is not what we want.” He may have a point. One of the few genuine shops was a small supermarket, selling typical, low-end domestic fare—duck necks, vacuum-packed chicken feet, potato chips, spicy tofu, beer, and frozen fish balls; items that probably don’t fit Liu’s ‘brand.’
While the shops may not sell foie gras and fine Scotch yet, there are nods to different parts of high European culture all around, even though Europeans themselves are not permitted to purchase any of these properties. According to the town website, the large, swanky but deserted Elischer restaurant pays tribute to the Austrian town where Emperor Franz Joseph is supposed to have met Princess Sisi—in fact, the real town is called Bad Ischl. But that doesn’t matter: The Spring Legend Holiday Hotel finally opened its doors two months ago to an impatient public and purports to be the “First Princess Sissy-themed [sic] hotel in Beijing”—an unproven (but perfectly credible) claim.
This unedited amalgam of different traditions and countries is deliberate, Liu explains: For mainlanders, at least, “it’s enough to get their general approval of the style. They don’t need the absolutely authentic experience.” Indeed, the European dwellings of Spring Legend may boast a range of primary colors, but something they don’t have is one that looks definitively European. That’s because the real thing can come with apparent drawbacks. “Well, German houses are too dark-colored,” Liu argues. “They look depressing.”
Indeed, as China’s confidence grows, the country might sour on foreign styles altogether. “Already, new developments are cropping up with traditional Chinese architecture as their theme,” Bosker observes. “We might have reason to worry when China stops copying our architecture altogether.”