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Sunday January 27, 2013

China’s copycat culture reaches greater heights

Counterfeit culture: This combo shows pictures of the construction of the
Wangjing Soho (top) building in Beijing, designed by architect Zaha Hadid, and
construction of the Meiquan 22nd Century building (bottom) in China’s southwest
Chongqing. Counterfeit culture: This combo shows pictures of the construction of the Wangjing Soho (top) building in Beijing, designed by architect Zaha Hadid, and construction of the Meiquan 22nd Century building (bottom) in China’s southwest Chongqing.

China’s infamous copycat culture has reached greater heights.

While I was nursing a large Long Black at Costa, after a bracing dash across a busy below-freezing Beijing street, a news item in a local daily caught my eye.

A Chongqing real-estate developer is accused of copying world-acclaimed architect Zaha Hadid’s Wangjing Soho towers, a cluster of fluid buildings inspired by the intricate movements of a Chinese fan. This office and retail complex is currently under construction in the country’s capital.

Outraged individuals, both inside and outside the country, are calling for compensation and stop-work orders. Most of all, these reports carry a certain incredulity that the building in question is scheduled for completion before the original.

The developer refutes the allegations, claiming that his project is instead inspired by the Chongqing cobblestones on the Yangtze riverbank.

Construction-wise, this isn’t a first. The postcard-pretty Austrian city of Hallstat has been replicated down to its last alpine detail in Huizhou city, southern China. There is a 108m Eiffel Tower rising above the Champs Elysees Square in Hangzhou. Meanwhile, a new New York City skyline is being created in Tianjin, on the site of a 15th-century fishing village.

A particular penchant for imposing White House replicas is sweeping through the country, as China’s nouveau riche become proud home-owners.

Unlike other critics of China’s counterfeit culture, Bianca Bosker’s recently published book Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China offers a kind of reprieve, if not understanding. The author, a senior editor with the Huffington Post, spent six years visiting the people and places mentioned in her book. According to her, imitation is not a Chinese form of flattery, but rather a realisation of their vision of a dream in response to their fantasies. The Atlantic Cities reports Bosker’s take: “We’re seeing the Chinese dream in action. It has to do with this ability to take control of your life. There’s now this plethora of options to choose from.” Plus the fact that they can do it.

She also informs us that the Chinese historically consider this tradition of duplication, which dates as far back as the Qing dynasty, as a marker of technology and superiority. It is from here that innovation stems, making their versions better than the original.

In the four times that I have been to Beijing, I have always visited The Forbidden City. Like many a tourist, I have also repeatedly visited the Summer Palace, the Temple of Heaven, Tiananmen Square and, of course, the Great Wall.

However, this time around, two days in Beijing, and I was bored.

It did not help that our hotel was located in Wangjing district, a featureless business hub. The view from the hotel room was equally dismal: stacked next to each other were nondescript skyscrapers, along with copious, unfurling clouds of smoke into an already smog-ridden sky.

Skyline? Barely visible.

Suburbia is ineffectual enough but when it is filled on all sides with tawdry shops, tasteless malls and too many people trying to get on with their day, it takes effort to be interested in one’s surroundings. Not that there was much to see in this part of Wangjing, other than buildings, more buildings, and construction site after construction site.

Plus, I was there in the coldest month of the coldest winter in decades. Thus, it was left to Costa coffees, delicious hot pots and a trip to the cinema to redeem this trip for me.

An initial plan to explore once again the Nanluoguxiang Hutong, one of Beijing’s oldest streets had to be aborted before I had even reached the first crossroad. Weary of nipping into souveniry and artsy shops to stay warm and drinking bad coffee simply to stay out of the cold, I cut short the afternoon after savouring barbequed skewers of meat and the sight of an old man standing at a street corner, proudly dressed in a dark army mackintosh and cap, displaying his red armband.

Giving up on outdoor explorations, I the next day chose to watch The Grandmaster on its opening day – despite the cinema staff’s concern that it did not come with English subtitles.

Wong Kar-Wai’s film – more than a decade in the making and three years in production – is an epic martial arts masterpiece, even if I did not understand a single word.

Through his stellar actors, stunning visual frames and stirring music, the director brought to life Ip Man, a grandmaster of the Wing Chun school of martial arts, and best known as teacher of kungfu legend Bruce Lee.

Every second of the film was compelling, from its aesthetically reassuring fight scenes to the feeling of time reverberating on our fleeting lives. The big themes of life, love and loss are all explored in exacting detail against the backdrop of a lost era.

That was when I realised that this is what I like about China. Its history and culture, and its homage to the classic. It’s definitively not the new billionaires or most of the recent repros. What’s the point in being the same as everyone else?

> Delighting in dead ends, Jacqueline Pereira seeks unexpected encounters to counter the outmoded. Find her on Facebook at Jacqueline-Pereira-Writing-on.

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