Sunday, January 20, 2013

I Brake For Fake: Tourists Flock to Replicas of Reality

The real (in case it wasn't obvious) Halstatt, in Austria [image]

China's unveiling of it's $9 Billion fake Alpine village was in the news recently, when it was "revealed" that "spies from a Chinese developer [Minmetals Land Inc.] had been secretly preparing detailed blueprints on furtive European trips, posing as tourists." According to Breaking Travel News, "the plan was discovered when a Chinese guest at one of the village hotels left blueprints behind."

The real Halstatt is an idyllic lakeside hamlet in Austria nestled in the mountains of the Alps, which are incidentally quite difficult to fake owing to their being humongous. China wisely avoided papier-maché mountains, and instead opted for plopping their version in an industrial park.

Mary Tudor in America anyone? Sefton Manor, at Mill Neck New York [source]
Visit blogger Gary Lawrance's Mansion's of the Gilded Age
It's easy to scoff, but remember that America was, and continues to be, just as infatuated with buying the credibility that Old Europe affords. The Vanderbilts and Astors built towering "cottages" in the European style, appropriating ready-made culture to offset the shiny newness of all that money. The Breakers is no different in it's intent than the Alpine replica of newly minted China.

The Venetian Casino, Las Vegas
In fairness to the Chinese, they did a pretty good job copying Halstatt. Interestingly, if not ironically, more Chinese tourists now travel all the way to Austria to visit the original than their homegrown replica. I doubt if the same can be said of Americans visiting Venice, since the vast majority don't even have passports.

Brrrr; creepy mustachioed man in a trench coat

From Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) to The Truman Show (1998), Hollywood reflects our simultaneous fascination and revulsion with the fake environment. In The Experts (1989), John Travolta and Kelly Preston are "two young hipsters" drugged and kidnapped by the KGB and shipped unknowingly to Russia. They awake thinking they're in Nebraska, open a nightclub and teach the Russian townies to dance. But what happens when the townsfolk taste freedom and the KGB want to kill them? Will our heroes awake from their nightmare in time to escape? It's xenophobia and paranoia wrapped up in bad hairdos and worse comedy.

What could be more grim than this Chinese replica of an E German town?

The Chinese Halstatt announcement caused a mixture of "astonishment, amusement and ... outrage" among Europeans. They may have forgotten that the very European idea of the Grand Tour was exactly the same in nature. In the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, young "cultural ambassadors" (basically spies) were encouraged to venture forth by a government greedy to keep it's cultural advantage in a dangerously unstable Europe. Young men came home with armfuls of drawings of monuments, studies of the classics, and copies of Italian paintings. They weren't seen as grave-robbers. On the contrary, they were seen as the advance guard in a very serious war.

You could argue that even the "real" Halstatt is faked for the tourists [Getty Images]

British historian E.P. Thompson explains that if the British were to maintain control of their Empire they must be seen to be at the forefront culturally, and that meant studying the classics at their source. According to Thompson, "ruling-class control in the 18th century was located primarily in a cultural hegemony, and only secondarily in an expression of economic or physical (military) power."

The Chinese Dorchester
This isn't the first time it's happened in China. "Chengdu British Town is modeled after Dorchester. Shanghai has xeroxed sections of Barcelona, Venice and Germany (the latter, a 2005 generic modernist village designed by Albert Speer Jr., remains a ghost town)." [source]
"In Pujiang, another Shanghai suburb, 100,000 citizens will soon occupy an Italian dreamscape complete with languid canals. In all, at least 500,000 people are expected to live in Shanghai's seven new satellite towns, each designed in the style of a different Western nation." [Der Spiegel]

What all this appropriation signifies, at least in part, is the belief that Knowledge is there for the taking. Just as European and American ruling elites believed that might makes right, and stole or destroyed everything they could get their hands on during their initial Empirical expansionist phases, so too does China. It's the cultural equivalent of the land-grab.

In an age where an ever increasing number of people don't pay for movies or music, they just grab them for free from the internet, it's hardly surprising that this is simply being met with a shrug of the shoulders. Old news is no news, it seems.

Kijong Dong, or "Peace Town" in the North Korean DMZ

Sometimes it's not the buildings themselves that are designed to deceive, but the intentions behind them. So called "Potemkin villages," fake Hollywood-style facades built by secretive governments intent on waging a propaganda war, are fascinating relics of political paranoia and xenophobia. Perhaps the most infamous is Kijong-dong, in North Korea with its 323 foot flagpole. Supposedly a 200-family collective farm built by "the illustrious leader" in the 1950s on the South Korean border, it has been exposed as an elaborate fake to fool the world into thinking North Korea is anything other than a complete disaster. The only "residents" are skeleton crews of street-sweepers hired to keep up the ruse. Keeping the streets nice and tidy, they wear earmuffs to block out the blasting anti-Western propaganda speeches emanating from speakers all over town.

In many ways, Europhilia and Euroscepticism inform each other. As one group is wearing pastel sweaters tied around their necks and fawning over French cheese, another is battoning the hatches against foreign cultural "invasion." In "What are we doing to stop our beloved Britain being taken over?" journalist Peter Hitchens argues for a British bulwark against cultural dilution, just as the French have argued for the removal of anglicized French words from le dictionnaire.

Source for a slideshow of renderings of the interior

Religion, not surprisingly, is no stranger to these bold statements of culture and empire, usually reserving their most bombastic architecture for either frontier outposts or GHQ. Scientology built it's so-called Superpower building in Clearwater, Florida, to "expand on technology developed by NASA to train astronauts." Despite antigravity simulators said to "speed the release of Super Power," it has been lying empty and unused for years. In reality, the building was conceived and thrown up as a propaganda backlash against the media storm surrounding the Lisa McPherson trial.

Occasionally, fake towns become real over time. Take the case of Agloe, New York. A fictitious map entry, designed as a copyright trap, Agloe was a "paper town" that existed in name only. Initially just a dirt-road intersection in the 1930s, until along came some pioneering entrepreneur who staked his claim and opened the Agloe General Store and suddenly the "town" started appearing on the Rand McNally Atlas. Not surprisingly, the store went out of business before long proving that not all small businesses are a good idea.

The West Texas movie set town of Alamo Village [image source]
Now over 50 years old, a fake movie facade of the Alamo is beginning to take on the real patina of age. Despite the historical re-enactors, this copy of 1836 San Antonio is surprisingly convincing and blurs the line between fake and real.

"It's like a real old-west town - difficult to tell the difference most of the time between what are essentially movie props (although built as real, functional buildings, not just facades) compared to real century-old buildings in western ghost towns."


  1. I grew up going to Disneyland. So there are still some aspects of traveling in Europe I find kind of unbelievable. Add to that, castles, churches, whole cities that were flattened in WWII are rebuilt all clean and new like nothing ever happened. Venice? really can look kind of fake. Especially when a cruise ship of 3 are berthed nearby and the place is overrun with tourists who never wander more than 100 feet from the main sights. It can depressingly like Disneyland. The food is much better in Venice, though.

  2. Fascinating!

    The creation of cultural forms, as holders of value ...
    ... and the uses and collection of such created forms.

    As creatives, what do we value enough to put into form?

    As cultural participants/curators/inheritors, what artifacts do we preserve and why?

    1. ... And what then can be said to be truly "authentic." I, like many others, spend my entire career co-opting culture from any number of sources, adding a patina of age and investing great effort to remove myself - my personality - from the work.

    2. These remind me of Thomas Kinkade paintings! Perfection and something enchanting. Very Disney-esque as the first commenter said.

  3. For successful communication and expression of shared values, some conformity or conventionalization of form has to be employed.

    Maybe "authenticity" involves putting more individual personality into the effort than that?

    Differentiation and innovation have to occur somehow or nothing can appear unique or develop.

    That's why some artists, even decorative artists are trailblazers.

    Individual and collective interdepend.

    1. Very true. The best innovators in any field inject something of themselves or of their time into work that builds on the base of their predecessors. And the truth is also that no matter how much one might try to avoid it, there is always something of the artist's hand no matter what.