Re-Made In China: From Designer Handbags to Entire Cities, Counterfeiting Is Taken to a Whole New Scale

A replica of Hallstatt, Austria in China's Guangdong province

What do designer handbags, the Apple Store and Europeans cities have in common? They've all been painstakingly reproduced in China.

Jokes and Canal Street-quality Louis Vuittons aside, the Chinese have taken their skills of clandestine reproduction to an entirely new level — and decidedly larger scale. Saturday marked the public opening of a Guangdong province replica of Hallstatt, a picturesque Austrian salt-mining town known for having the world’s oldest pipeline, a population of 800, and UNESCO World Heritage Site status. The $940 million residential project, helmed by a Chinese metal-trading tycoon, recreated the site's quaint housing style, church tower, and lake — although pictures suggest the sky there is noticeably darker than in the Alps. Reportedly 150 of the 400 villas have already been sold for $1,425 each, twice the average price in the area. 

If not for China's reputation as an unapologetic serial plagiarist we might look at this project with more of the whimsical appreciation that we do Disney World, but Hallstatt residents reacted with outrage upon hearing plans for the project a year ago. China is becoming something of a nation-sized Epcot Center, however, as Hallstatt isn’t the first village they’ve copied; pastiches of European towns built as themed playgrounds for the wealthy have been sprouting up across the nation for more than a decade.

Just outside of Shanghai, the town of Anting — home to Shanghai Volkswagon's assembly plant — possesses its own failed German village. Brightly colored Bauhaus-style homes have lined the streets there since 2001, but have failed to attract many residents. Frankfurt’s Albert Speer (not Hitler’s chief architect, but Hitler’s chief architect’s son) chose to design the town in the likeness of contemporary cities like Stuttgart or Kassel, which lack the Alpine quaintness of Hallstatt. Anting also boasts bronze statues of Goethe and Schiller in a cobblestone square, which pedestrians pass daily without recognizing the figures they represent.

Five years later a simulacrum of a stereotypical British burg, Thames Town, appeared in Shanghai’s outlying Songjiang District, constructed to draw the wealthy middle class away from the city center. Resembling a English market town, it bears architectural flourishes from various eras, like Tudor-style homes and brick Victorian-style warehouses at the waterfront. Certain buildings have been copied directly from existing British establishments: the church spire is a dead ringer for Bristol’s Christ Church, while English resident Gail Caddy claims the town ripped off her classic fish and chip shop in Lyme Regis. On the other side of Shanghai, the very Parisian-looking Tianducheng Resort features an Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, and a Versailles fountain.

A condensed version of all these European facsimiles and more is Shenzhen’s Window of the World theme park, which features with reproductions of 130 of the world’s most touristy landmarks — the Taj Mahal, Egypt's Pyramids, and yet another Eiffel Tower among them — effectively squeezing the entire world onto just 118 acres of land.

Critics of this systematic replication of foreign architecture maintain that it reflects poorly on China’s own creativity and ability to innovate, but the country’s ability to reproduce Western treasures quickly and cheaply has certainly added fuel to its economic boom. There are high hopes in China that Hallstatt 2.0 will become a major tourist destination. Residents of the real Hallstatt have softened their stance on the project, according to Reuters, as Mayor Alexander Scheutz has said he now considers being the subject of a Chinese replica an honor. The city’s official website would lead us to believe it’s an asset of sorts; it now uses its Chinese twin as a major selling point: “The village Hallstatt is such an unbelievably spectacular place that even the Chinese have created a copy of the ancient salt mine village.”

To see images of China's own Austria, Germany, England, and France, click the slide show