One of the privileges of making this magazine is working with an incredible range of talent and there are few finer examples of this than photographers Max and Liz Haarala Hamilton. The pair collaborated with us for both our Detroit and London issues and while contemplating the subject of China for this week’s Beyond the Headlines we were reminded of their trip to the quirky yet haunting ‘Thames Town’ located just outside Shanghai. We caught up with them to discuss their experience of this ‘anglicised oasis’ and the photographs with which they documented it.
Having visited ‘Thames Town’ what was your initial sensation when experiencing this anglicised place so close to the vastly contrasting environment of Shanghai?
It was pretty strange it all looked familiar and but not real at the same time.
To get to Thames Town we had travelled for an hour to the end of the Metro line in Shanghai and then walked blindly for 40 minutes to find the actual area. You leave from the centre of one of the largest and modern metropolises in the world, go underground and then when you come back up overland you find the sprawling city left behind and you are now in some kind of strange suburban no man’s land, with hardly a person in sight.
We had no map of how to actually get to Thames Town and there were no taxis or public transport to speak of, so we had to guess where to get off the metro from sight and then head in a direction we thought would lead us to Thames Town.
We knew we were on the right track as we kept passing different themed gated communities including Italian, Dutch and German ‘towns’. It is a very strange experience to walk around these areas that are modelled on European places and what the Chinese think an English or Italian town is like. One overwhelming feeling was of how empty the area was of people, there were very few cars or traffic. In the 40 minutes it took to walk to Thames Town we didn’t pass a single shop, all that was there were roads and houses.
How do the fine details of the place hold up in terms of creating a ‘genuine’ experience of an English town?
You could see that someone had some kind of idea of what one might find in an English town, for example they had a fish and chip shop, a church and there were red telephone boxes scattered around. There were also references to well-known street names such as Gower Street – but without people it just doesn’t feel real and you find yourself walking around a life size model village, but one that lacks the charm that a miniature might have.
In fact the people who designed Thames Town had visited Poundbury in Dorset, an experimental new town built according to the principles of Prince Charles, with classic architecture. This idea was transported to China and the result is an English-looking town built with Chinese eyes and understanding of what ‘Englishness’ is. In actual fact if you look at pictures of Poundbury and Thames Town the two do actually look pretty similar. The problem is that because it is based on a fabricated English town what you get is a Chinese fabricated English looking town based on an idea of what an English town should look like.
Your photos show the town mostly deserted and as you say there were very few people around; did this make it a more or less compelling place to document?
We knew that no one had really moved there and in actual fact we had heard rumours that only one family was actually living in Thames Town, and this was part of the reason we were interested in photographing there. If you think about a country with almost two billion people, it is amazing that these kinds of places exist where there are almost no people. The only people we saw were the guards, a bar man working in the “traditional pub” and possibly a couple of residents. The rest of the people were couples having their wedding photos taken.
When we took the photos the place was eerily void of people – it would be interesting to go back now and see if anybody is living there, or if it has deteriorated from when we first visited.
So with the town being a pretty popular backdrop for wedding photographs, it would seem that it exists in local minds as more of a novelty than a place to seriously consider living in. What feeling towards the place did you get from the people that you met during your time there?
It definitely felt more of a novelty place to us and maybe to most Chinese too. It is very expensive to live there if you are on a regular income in China, which is part of the reason it was so empty. However if more people had enough money then maybe they would move there and it would develop a real community. It would be interesting to see how this ‘Poundbury of China’ works – We’re not sure it would be many people’s ‘ideal’ place to live, just think how many people here would move to a model Chinese Town?
What do you think the creation (and the subsequent legacy) of Thames Town says about the role western culture plays in the lives of Shanghai residents?
In truth most Shanghai residents probably don’t know or even care Thames Town even exists. To others it may be the dream to live in a house that is in an English town in China, but as we mentioned this is unattainable for most Chinese.
All over China construction on the outskirts of cities is unrelenting; these theme towns are part of that false construction boom. You can travel for miles in some cities past apartment blocks that are completely empty, there is so much property that has been built recently that just sits there.
In terms of Western culture’s role in the lives of Shanghai residents – if you live in the City of Shanghai you are surrounded by Western advertisements, products and brands, but like most people, the people of Shanghai tend to take small elements of different cultures and make them a part of their lives. In many cases it is traditional to have western wedding photos taken as well as then having a traditional Chinese wedding – we would say that to actually move to a ‘model town’ like Thames Town is probably a step too far for most.
Does the creation of the town say something about an interest that China has with ‘Englishness’ or is it merely part of the wider trend of ‘imported’ towns?
There is a clear interest in Western life style in China, the country itself has become more open and influences from the West are seeping into every part of Chinese culture. With that of course brings an interest in Western architecture and someone obviously thought that idea of living the life of an English Town was an attractive one to some Chinese. Rather than there being a fixation with Englishness, as we mentioned, there were all sorts of imported towns which supposedly include a small Paris themed town with a scaled down Eiffel Tower, we tried to find that too but no one knew where it was. We did wonder if the idea of building these towns are in some way a souvenir of someone or a way for people to ‘visit’ Europe without actually leaving your own Province.
Liz and Max Haarala Hamilton are a photographic duo based in London who collaborate on editorial, portrait and food photography and fine art projects. Their work has been featured in numerous publications both in the UK and abroad such as the Observer Magazine, Observer Food Monthly, Huck Magazine and have worked for a range of clients including Conran Octopus, BBC and Mondadori Electa. haaralahamilton.com
By Alec Dudson