A daytrip to Wee Britain

There seemed to be many reasons for me to visit Thames Town.  I really enjoyed my trip to Holland Village (despite the emptiness and facadism).  I had another urban designer friend – let’s call her Mao Xiao –visiting and I thought she would appreciate seeing another side of the city. It reminded me of Wee Britain from the brilliant Arrested Development (appearing in Season Three, but for those who haven’t seen it, I totally recommend watching all two-and-a-half seasons).  Plus, I just like weird things.

Like the other nine new city centres of Shanghai, Thames Town is located on the outskirts of the city, not too close to public transport and themed around an international style.  Thames Town of course is modelled on a kinda-Victorian-era English township.

As a replica, it’s pretty good.  As with Holland Village, the streets are smaller and more friendly than the typical Shanghai street.

There are cute pitched roof houses.

There are little courtyards and plazas.

There is a Main Square with little shop fronts (albeit empty, again similar to Holland Village) with vaguely English names.

There are red phone boxes.

There are rendered bricks and chimneys (not sure if they work or if they need chimney-sweeps, which would be TOTALLY British).

There are even a scattering of statues of famous English people.  I saw Winston Churchill lurking outside a shop in the main square, Mary Poppins down at the waterfront, and in the most prominent position of all, Harry Potter.  I imagine that in China, he probably is the most recognised English person.

The whole place would be Prince Charles’ fantasy.  Google “Poundbury” if you don’t get what I am saying.  Alas, like Poundbury, like Holland Village, Thames Town is a great example of failed planning.  Disconnected from transport, overly sterile and stylistically forced, the whole place is lacking in persons as well as personality.  It seemed that no-one lived there, with only a few shops (convenience stores and real estate agents) operating and relatively few people in the streets.

As if to reinforce the whole ‘theme park’ vibe, Thames Town has become a popular backdrop for wedding photos.  In China, wedding photography is huge.  Before the actual ceremony, couples spend days getting photos taken, using many elaborate costumes and different locations, then Photoshopping the results to within an inch of unreality.  Sometimes thousands of dollars and hours of anxiety are spent completing the task.

So, the streets of Thames Town were littered with dozens of young couples, photographers, video crews and costumers in tow.

They pose against the buildings and spaces of the city.

They smile and pout and smoulder.

They saunter past each other without acknowledgement, except perhaps for a sideways glance to compare costumes or future partners.

They fill the church yard (the ‘church’ I think may actually conceal a huge exhaust stack for the public car park below – the upper ‘windows’ are metal louvres).


They like bright pink apparently.

I had decided that I would make it my mission to visit every one of the nine new cities, only to recently discover that the government has canned the whole exercise (apparently after the failure of Thames Town and Holland Village).  Sad for lovers of theme parks, but good for the city I guess.


9 Responses to A daytrip to Wee Britain

  1. luKe says:

    Can you do an in-depth post to your blog on the traditional architecture of the Shanghai region?
    (If any still exists??) Buddhist temples etc …

    • I can, but I would like to do the topic some justice. Wee Britain and the Barbie SuperStore, by their nature, are much easier to write about. Plus, architectural history has never been my strong point.

  2. Adina West says:

    Hey, the Shanghainese could reference something closer to home, and build a beautiful hutong district full of Beijing-style siheyuan. The traditional courtyard-style quadrangle homes really are uniquely Chinese and those beautiful ornate entry doors would be well worth replicating with the level of enthusiasm they’ve been putting into Dutch and English architecture. THAT I would buy.

    • Shanghai also has its own housing type, the shikumen (‘stone gate’) style based around shared pedestrian laneways. I think the commercial failure of Thames Town and Holland Village has been a good lesson, and yes, hopefully, the traditions of Chinese design will be making a comeback sometime soon!

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