Sunday, August 18, 2013


Originally published on Murder Is Everywhere, Aug. 11 2013

Greetings from scenic Buttonwillow, just east of the I-5. I'm driving to San Diego from San Francisco and I don't like trying to do it in a day, so here I am at a Motel Six, where the sheets are clean, the air conditioner is loud enough to drown out the trucks zooming up the freeway and there's a pupuseria next door. I find places like this pretty fascinating, actually. All these little farm towns and pit stops for travelers and truckers. A great location for some kind of suspense sequence, I'm thinking.

But I'm not here to write about Buttonwillow, or even Coalinga! No, I'm going to talk a little about the Chinese phenomena of "shanzhai." -- 山寨。"Shanzhai" literally means "mountain fastness, a fortified mountain village." Colloquially it means "outside of government supervision," and "pirated or knockoff."

Shanzhai products in China are legion. Everything from fake iPhones to entire fake Apple stores.

(Starbucks knockoffs are a particular favorite)

But in China shanzhai goes way beyond fake brands or phony stores. In China, we have entirely pirated cities! 

Here's a place I visited outside of Shanghai called "Thames Town." It is an almost deserted subdivision that seems to get the most use as a location for wedding photo shoots. 

 (A nice day for a red wedding)

Not too far away from Thames Town is a fake Swedish town -- I can't remember the exact name but I think it translates to "Northern European Style Village." 

Also close to Shanghai is an entire "Little Paris," complete with Eiffel Tower. Do check out this amazing photo essay--here's a sample: 

There are so many shanzhai developments like this in China that it's hard to keep track of them all. But so far the winner has to be the Chinese real estate developers who duplicated the entire Austrian town of Halstatt. 

Then there's the plan to duplicate Manhattan just outside of Tianjin. The city, Yujiapu, would serve as a new financial center for a new China. It's one of the largest construction sites in the world and includes replicas of Lincoln and Rockefeller Centers. But with the slowdown in China's economy, the success of this massive project is far from assured. And if it doesn't succeed? A Manhattan-sized ghost town of half-completed skyscrapers probably isn't going to get much use as a location for wedding photo shoots.