At the beginning of Caspar Stracke’s video of Tianducheng – Zhejiang’s mimetic Paris – we see the Eiffel Tower rising into a deep blue sky above clean white Parisian apartment buildings. As the camera pans back, we realize that we’re only looking at a poster advertising real estate opportunities in Tianducheng. The actual sky is the same flat grey that has become so prevalent in eastern China these days. The white buildings of the poster are in fact a bit blotchy with dust and soot, and the Eiffel Tower is just a darker grey silhouette, disappearing in the haze. The actual town is a striking contrast to the image in the poster.
I wonder if we might think of tourists visiting places like Tianducheng as ‘shanzhai tourists’? Shanzhai 山寨 – literally ‘mountain lair’ or ‘stockade’ (as in a kind of hideout for bandits) – is the term used to describe a knock-off, fake, or copy. But the term has taken on a broader cultural significance, referring to the whole subterranean cultural economy of tricksters who display a spirit of clever innovation in their incessant willingness to copy just about anything: famous paintings, luxury watches, any kind of Apple product, architectural and urban planning designs, television reality shows, novels, computer programs, and (as in the case of Tianducheng and many other ‘simulacracapes’ throughout China) famous buildings and urban landscapes.
Shanzhai is one of the 10 key words chosen by Yu Hua to describe contemporary Chinese society. In some ways, we might think of shanzhai as a creative response to China’s position as ‘world factory.’ That position was recently summarized by Li Wuwei, in his book How Creativity is Changing China in this way:
China’s manufacturing enterprises can be described as a coolie: he sweats over what he is making and sells it to the rich at a very low price. He uses the little money he makes to buy bonds from the rich. But the rich person is still not happy, criticizing him for working too hard, making so much pollution that his home is no longer a safe place to live and taking jobs away from other people. Meanwhile the rich person pays the poor guy principal and interest with a continuously devaluing currency.
Looked at this way, shanzhai seems like a reasonable and creative response to China’s situation in the world. Shanzhai thumbs its nose at the formal system of innovation that China produces but does not design. So why not think about Chinese tourism as containing some similar tendencies? After all, until recently anyway, there was a shanzhai Disneyland just outside of Beijing. Tianducheng is a shanzhai Paris, just as Shanghai’s ‘Thames Town’ is a shanzhai Britain, Anting is a shanzhai Germany, and Guangdong has its own shanzhai Hallstatt.
Recently, a series of photographs by Alex Hofford were posted on Netease. They show shanzhai tourists in Hong Kong posing for pictures in front of a poster showing Hong Kong’s beautiful skyline on a clear sunny day with blue skies and puffy white clouds hovering overhead. While the pictures offer an obvious commentary on the deteriorating quality of China’s environment, they also perhaps suggest some of the shanzhai innovation that China does better than anyone. Shanzhai tourists aren’t necessarily ‘fake’ in the negative sense of that word, but have adapted to the constraints of their world with some creativity, some irony, and some cleverness.