German Ghost Town in the Heart of China


Half-timbered buildings and medieval romance -- that's what the Chinese wanted. But the architecture firm Speer thought it knew better, and built a modern German residential quarter on the outskirts of Shanghai. Now that it is complete, though, nobody wants to live there. Even Oktoberfest was cancelled.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is posing in his tailcoat and laurel wreath, while Friedrich Schiller next to him is clutching a scroll. The two bronze statues proudly guard a cobblestone square surrounded by trees. "Passersby keep asking me who these two gentlemen are," says one café owner waiting for customers on a scorching late summer day. "Should one know them?"

Germany's greatest poets have been supplanted into a strange country. The square isn't in Weimar or Heidelberg after all. Rather, it is in a suburb of Shanghai. Anting German Town, 30 kilometers from the Chinese metropolis, is a typical German residential district built in China as an experiement that isn't working.

Indeed, it is a ghost town. The streets are deserted, a bored security guard sits in his hut, For Sale signs are everywhere. The post office is finished and the postbox says "Collection Once Daily." But you wouldn't be wise to throw a letter in because it has yet to be emptied and the post office remains closed for business.

If this were the Wild West, tumbleweed would be rolling down the street.

Anting German Town looks like a new residential district in Stuttgart or Kassel, with buildings three to five storeys high in the functional Bauhaus style -- plain facades in orange and lime green, inner courtyards with trees and bushes. So far the district covers an area of one square kilometer. The plan is to expand it to five square kilometers.

The district was designed in 2001 by the Frankfurt-based architecture firm Albert Speer & Partner. Speer is the son of the eponymous architect who was Hitler's chief architect and minister of armaments and war production during World War II.

The district is a few kilometers from the old city center of Anting, a busy satellite town of Shanghai crowded with tall, faceless buildings. It is close to Automobile City which contains VW's Chinese plant, car components factories, research institutions and Shanghai's Formula One race track.

Demand for Clichéd Replica Towns

Copying European cities is en vogue in China. There are several near Shanghai, including Thames Town, which evokes Victorian England and boasts red telephone boxes, and Holland Town, which has an obligatory windmill next to narrow brick houses. In southern China, the village of Hashitate is being built, an exact copy of the Austrian village of Hallstatt which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Chinese developers originally had a clichéd German town in mind for Anting, with half-timbered houses and arched gates , but the German architects persuaded the city administration to let them build a model district that represented modern, environmentally-friendly Germany, with double-glazing and central heating instead of Black Forest romance.

The problem is that hardly anyone wants to live here. The plan was for 50,000 people to live in Anting. "The city was intended to be completed in 2008," says Johannes Dell, Speer's representative in China. But only the first portion has been built. In the evenings, there are hardly any lights on in the apartment blocks.

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