Green-lit in the Shanghai government’s 2001 ‘One City, Nine Towns’ program, and completed in 2006 with a capacity for around 10,000 permanent residents, the town stands now, eight years later, as a largely forgotten failed experiment. It’s quite a trek from the centre – it can take up to two hours by metro and taxi – but for a unique experience of bemusement and potentially curious unease, it’s worth a visit.

Oxford StreetOn arriving in Thames Town it becomes apparent very quickly that despite a remarkable effort to emulate a British town as truthfully as possible, there exists a bounty of inaccuracies and bizarre quirks that make the place seem more like a surreal dream setting than a successful attempt at cultural mimicry. There are a number of discrepancies that are obvious at first sight, such as the presence of Chinese text everywhere, and the pyjama-style Queen’s Guard imitation costumes, but more interesting and more disconcerting are those that don’t jump out immediately; things that might seem a bit off, but that take a moment’s thought or a double take to realise why.


Thames Town Guard

There are, for example, German-style ‘Zeitung’ postboxes placed on some buildings, and in many places traditional lantern light-fittings that have been fitted upside down.

Zeitung

Lanterns

There are half-English shop names like ‘Monchhchi’, and signposts on which there are written no destinations.

Monchhchi

There are telephone boxes adorned with the words ‘China Telecom’, and innumerable buildings that look authentic from the outside, but that inside are empty concrete expanses.

Telephone Box and Signpost

Thames Town feels like a time-warp gone wrong, where the aesthetics of different cultures, from various periods of history, have been implanted into an alternate world where consistency is a concept that simply doesn’t exist. One side of a building may look like a Tudor terrace, but skirt the perimeter and you might find yourself standing in a Soviet-style square, complete with an ambiguous industrial water fountain and what look like decaying faux-modern government offices.

Soviet Square

Like the student who decides just to ‘cook anything that’s in the cupboard’ and ends up with a noodles, peanut butter and marmite pizza, whoever was responsible for designing Thames Town was clearly ill-equipped to carry out the task, and the result is fascinating, entertaining, but not palatable for long.

Perhaps that is why virtually no one wants to stay there for a protracted period of time. According to the owner of a Ukrainian restaurant that sits confusingly in the centre of the town, most of the town’s houses and apartments are still unsold, and even those that have been bought are usually empty, having been purchased as a ‘second home’ or ‘holiday house’.

House

But the town isn’t falling apart. Quite the opposite: even years after having been established to be a failed experiment, much of it looks cleaner and better maintained than most other areas of Shanghai.

(Click to enlarge)

It begs the question how, and why, might this be? What purpose has the town managed to carve out for itself? The answer is simple, but perhaps a little unexpected: wedding photos.

Wedding Photo Wedding Photo Three couples wedding photo

In China it’s normal for couples to have their wedding photos taken months before their actual wedding day. If you go to any nice park in Shanghai on a sunny day you can expect to see at least one or two couples getting snapped, and there are some scenic areas of the city where in the daytime there run almost year-round conveyor belts of soon-to-be-wed fiancés trying to look their best in rented costumes. Thames Town is permeated by couples posing in front of cameras, so much so that finding a street you can walk down and not feel guilty about having potentially ruined a shot is a genuine challenge.

The effect this has had is that Thames Town is now essentially little more than a multi-million dollar set piece. The town’s church, an attempted carbon copy of Bristol’s Christ Church, seldom holds services, and remains pretty much deserted inside, but is swamped on the outside by couples competing for the best shots.Thames Town Church

Church Square Couples

On the opposite side of the church square, a well painted front hides behind it large empty halls with broken escalators and piss-stained stairways.

Behind the facadeBehind the facade  Behind the facade

Along the main streets, the few shops that remain open turn out not to be boutique clothing stores, as they appear to be from outside, but instead deal solely in costume rental. The surreality of the place could easily inspire a nightmarish claustrophobia. It’s a town of superficiality where the shops are fake, the weddings are fake, the buildings are fake, but every person there, except for the unaware visitor, exists in earnest. The other-worldly narrative that plays out on every street of the town forces the visitor to either sit back, enjoy the ride and laugh a little, or to try and escape back to the real world, looking back with discomfort at what might as well have been a bad dream. If you are fond of strange, unsettling experiences, or if you have a particular affinity to parades of people getting photographed in wedding clothes, then Thames Town is for you. If you’re from the UK and are looking for a slice of home, it probably isn’t.

Some more pictures (click):