Xi Shi was a legendary beauty from the ancient state of Yue (located in what is today’s Zhejiang province). According to folklore, such was Xi’s beauty that fish would forget how to swim and birds would fall from the sky. Even if she winced in pain it was deemed a handsome sight.
Legend has it too that a local girl called Dong Shi, who was ugly by nature, decided to imitate the great beauty by frowning as if she was in pain. But villagers were scared by her looks and ran away. This tale later inspired the idiom dong shi xiao pin, which means that when you blindly copy someone else, it can have the opposite to the intended effect.
It’s an idiom that executives at Minmetals Land didn’t heed. In 2011 WiC reported that a replica of Hallstatt, the picturesque lakeside village in Austria, had been built in Huizhou, in China’s Guangdong province. The property developer was hoping that the Alpine look would attract buyers. The replica, which cost Rmb6 billion ($971 million) to build, came with an artificial lake, cobblestone streets, a medieval church and sidewalk cafes.
“The Hallstatt tour operation has been going very well. It has cumulatively received hundreds of thousands of tourists,” Tan Suisheng, a manager at the development, told the National Business Daily.
But despite Tan’s enthusiasm, the Hallstatt replica has won over few homebuyers. On a recent visit, National Business Daily said that the villas built among the nearby mountains were virtually empty. The road to town was covered with dust, while many of the shops in the business district opened only sporadically. And although there were visitors during the day, in the evening the site was empty.
Perhaps that is because of access. It takes at least half an hour for residents to get to the nearest town and over an hour if they want to reach more metropolitan areas like Guangzhou and Shenzhen.
According to the financial statements of Minmetals Land, the project has generated about Rmb400 million in revenue since the opening ribbons were cut two years ago. That means it is nowhere close to recouping its investment. Industry observers say this is no great surprise. “There are numerous examples of Chinese developers replicating foreign architecture to draw tourists but mostly they are lossmaking. One reason is that the architecture is out of context with local surroundings or loses its meaning. By merely imitating, the structures are completely out of place within our own urban environment. The effect is the same as pretending to frown like Dong Shi,” concludes Shichang Xingbao, a newspaper from Anhui province.
Of course, Hallstatt isn’t the first copycat location in China. The Eiffel Tower, Orange County, Interlaken and Venice all have their doubles in the country. There’s also a British town – modelled on Dorchester – in Chengdu and another one called Thames Town near Shanghai. The White House has also spawned imitations in cities from Nanjing to Wuxi.
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