The Real Thing, an immersion in China’s copycat cities

Fisherman in Venice Water Town

Since a few years, the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival provides a “Virtual Reality” (VR) space. In this edition, eight documentaries were accessible to the public, with a variety of themes. This immersive technology offers indeed an endless amount of possibilities for film-makers, video game creators and artists.  

Made In China

One of these documentaries – The Real Thing (Archi-Vrai) – questioned the concept of fakeness and imitation, through the depiction of Chinese reproductions of European cities. The documentary shows us three different towns: Tiandu Cheng, Venice Water Town and Thames Town. Situated in the periphery of Shanghai, they resemble Paris, Venice and London. The inhabitants talk about their lives in these communities, their hopes and aspirations. They also take us around to discover the artificial monuments and neighborhoods.

“Real Fake”

There is actually no unreality here. It’s all real but some of it is real fake.

Through the inhabitants’ eyes, we can see these “fake cities” for what they actually are: their life, their reality. Though a critical point of view of these districts is important, it also led us to question our own westernized way to consider them, as pastiches, kitsch, or Disney-like. Chinese culture has indeed a different approach to imitation. They value less than in Occident (the West) the authenticity or the originality of a work. Mimicry, in this way, is considered to be a form of mastery and flattery. For instance, urban imitation has a long tradition in the country. The Qin Dynasty (221 to 201 BC) already showed examples of this: the emperor built replicas of its six kingdoms in front of his palace.

The Middle Empire

It is also interesting to interrogate the motives behind this mimicry of Western architecture in particular. Through the documentary, we perceive a certain attraction of the inhabitants to occidental architecture and culture in general. The social image linked to European scenery and products is important for the wealthy middle and upper class in China, although they still value their own culture a lot. This crossing of identities is a really striking image of the documentary. We are projected in this middle point between China and Europe: Chinese traditions and customs take place in a very European architecture that people managed to appropriate. Indeed, as one of the habitants explains, they copied the architecture of the cities, not their way of life.  

Chinese man hang-drying his clothes outside, in Tiendu Cheng
In Tiendu Cheng, Chinese inhabitants appropriate the “Parisian” architecture according to their culture and needs.

From the State’s point of view, these neighborhoods are also a symbolic way to display China’s power and position in the world. In a certain sense, through their replicas, they show that they caught up and even outperformed the West. For example, it is noteworthy to mention that the White House is one of the most copied buildings in China.

While it once considered itself to be the center of the world, now China is making itself into the center that actually contains the world.

Bianca Bosker, author of Original Copies: Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China.


Mirror Mirror

The media of Virtual Reality harmonizes itself well with this subject of imitation. Through this experience, the director questions our relationship with reality. He interrogates the frontiers between fake and real, replica and original. What if we could explore the world through its copy? What if we could travel without leaving our own country?  “It’s almost being abroad here,” says indeed one of the men in Tiandu Cheng, the replica of Paris.

While the documentary shows us realities in fake places, the VR helmet does exactly the same. We are projected in this elsewhere but are still sitting in a chair, in our own city and country. Just like the people we are shown. This image of mirroring is at the heart of the film. Inhabitants of these twin cities wonder about the life of their neighbors from the other side of the globe, who probably don’t even know they exist.

Garden view from Tiendu Cheng
“Sometimes when night falls here in Sky City, I imagine it’s still daytime in Paris, France”, tells us a restaurant owner interviewed in the documentary.


If this article sparked your interest, you can find the VR documentary on the Arte website.

Post Author: Emma Lesburgueres

Emma Lesburgueres
Hi, I am a 21-year old girl from France who moved to Greece for six months. I am interested in culture, social justice and digital humanities.

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