January 30, 2012


David Ellis

THAMES Town looks as jolly British as its name implies: walk its streets and you quickly learn the traps of cobblestones, fashion boutiques rub shoulders with a pub that pumps real ale, the houses and villas are classic Georgian and Victorian, the town square sports a statue paying tribute to Sir Winston Churchill, and if you've forgotten your mobile phone there are enough red phone boxes to make that urgent call home.

And if you want to feel the grass under your toes there's a nice little town green on which to do so, while with luck you may be on time to see the Changing of the Guard at the entrance to this quintessential market town – and if you're looking for somewhere unusual to tie the knot, there's even the Gothic-style Christ Church in which to do so, plus a 4-star hotel to celebrate in afterwards.

The only thing that's askew is that this ever-so-British-looking Thames Town, that's complete down to a traditional fish and chip shop and street signs showing High Street, Oxford Street, Queen Street and similar, is anything but British.

Because rather than sitting comfortably alongside Old Father Thames, it in fact sits beside a man-made river in China. And rather than the busy community its creators envisaged when they built it in the mid-1990s, Thames Town is more Ghost Town with most of its houses and apartments empty, its shops largely devoid of customers and its streets eerily quiet.

It's part of a Chinese takeaway scheme that hasn't quite clicked, those who conceived it believing it would help alleviate the massive overcrowding of China's largest city, Shanghai that has a population of over 23-million (just a tad more than Australia's entire population of 22.8-million.)

And in fact Thames Town was just one part of a grand scheme titled One City, Nine Towns that would see nine new communities created in an arc around Shanghai – each of them a copy-cat of typical small towns in rural England, Italy, Spain, America, Holland, Germany, Sweden, China itself, and as an architectural whimsy, an "ecological town" called Lingang.

Each would house up to 10,000 people, hopefully upwardly mobile younger and wealthier Chinese wanting to get away from being cooped-up with the in-laws. But this hasn't come about and Thames Town – despite being dubbed locally Ghost Town – is the closest to coming to success. And this modest success is not because some people in overcrowded Shanghai took the plunge and moved the 30km "into the countryside," but because many older, more-affluent Chinese have bought houses and apartments there as rental investments. But most are empty, even though Thames Town is within the boundaries of Songjiang New City and adjacent to Songjiang University Town that has no fewer than seven universities attended daily by 70,000 students and staff.

But it's attracting quite a few tourists, both local Chinese and from overseas to gawk at it's almost eccentricities, shop in its boutiques, dine in its English-style eateries, drink in the "English pub," have a cuppa at the oddly, if not prophetically-titled Incomplete Coffee shop, and even stay overnight in the 4-star Liston Hotel.

And at weekends happy-snap Chinese wedding couples who use the replica  Gothic-style Christ Church to tie the knot.

Happy-snappers also click-away at a healthy sprinkling of statues around the town that pay homage to dignitaries such as Sir Winston Churchill, royalty including Princess Diana, British book and movies icons like Harry Potter, and take a stroll along the man-made "Thames River," dine in a floating restaurant, and take-in the tranquillity of parks with shady trees…

They even find an English-style club, a supermarket, medical clinic and a kindergarten – all of them under-utilised. And as Thames Town is a kind of gated community, they can watch the daily Changing of the Guard, at the entrance to this unusual community.

Tourists visiting Shanghai can take the train from the city to either Songjian New City or Songjiang University Town and catch a local bus or taxi to Thames Town that's just 4km from both centres.

Australia's Wendy Wu Tours have independent packages to Thames Town and can add them to tours beginning or ending in Shanghai.  Details from www.wendywutours.com.au or 1300 727 998.

For general information about Shanghai: www.meet-in-shanghai.net

Photo captions:


[] THAMES Town – just like the real thing, but a Chinese takeaway

[] EMPTY apartments give Thames Town a Ghost Town feel

[] REPLICA Gothic-style church is popular with local Chinese for spectacular weddings

[] STREET scenes like this would make you think you were in the real thing

[] THERE are even British-style phone boxes in the streets


(Photos: Shanghai Tourism Board)




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