Wherever you go in downtown Shanghai, you’ll be struck by international influence both past and present. From the leafy avenues of the former French Concession to the modern malls on Nanjing West Road, this is a city that grew up with globalisation.
For a different – and less crowded – take on cosmopolitanism, head to the suburbs. Hidden among the city outskirts are six European-style towns. These novel developments are a result of a 2001 plan to relieve population pressure in the city centre, by building new suburbs on the outskirts. It was hoped the European motifs would help attract Shanghai's middle and upper classes, but deserted streets in some of these areas suggest it takes more than quirky themes to pull residents away from central Shanghai.
If the city's population growth catches up with its relentless construction, though, these offbeat enclaves are unlikely to stay quiet forever. Here are a few of the most intriguing.
For a very British experience, ride the Shanghai metro to Thames Town. Almost everything here, including the clambering ivy, the man-made River Thames and the church modelled on its Bristol counterpart, is disconcertingly English.
It’s this very Englishness that makes touches of Chinese life stand out all the more: the red-coated guard on an electric moped, the ladies with purple permed hair and their similarly coiffured poodles, the countless couples who travel here for wedding photography.
Though it’s known officially as Thames Town, perhaps the place is best summed up by the name of a local language school: Li Yang Crazy English Town.
Architectural firm Albert Speer & Partner (Speer’s father was Hitler’s chief architect in WWII) based their design for Anting New Town on modern German residential districts. The result may indeed be modern, but the empty streets suggest it’s not very residential. It is, in fact, a bit of a ghost town, with only one in five properties being inhabited.
As well as rows of yellow and red apartment blocks, the development includes the German Football Park – a small pitch where real players have been substituted for plastic statues.
In the central square, too, statues dominate. Friedrich Schiller and Johann Wolfgang van Goethe stand with an air of gravity that suggests that they are in a town with more than one open bar.
German beer, and Taiwanese sausages, are on offer in the restaurant opposite the literary figures, and you won’t need to queue to place your order.
Luodian North European New Town is inspired by Sigtuna in Sweden. Like Luodian, Sigtuna sits on the banks of a Lake Malaren. The Chinese version of the lake is a popular spot for camping and barbecues, and is probably more frequently used for wedding photos than its Swedish counterpart.
Away from the water, statues of naked Scandinavians pose outside northwest Chinese noodle shops. With titles such as Vitality, these scantily-clad artworks fit right into Luodian’s natural, outdoors theme.
You’ll need the adventurous spirit of a knight-errant to discover Spanish Fengcheng. The 600 year-old town is a bustling jigsaw of hotpot restaurants and clothing stores, and even many locals haven’t noticed the Spanish influence.
But Spanish influence there is, and you’ll know you’ve found it once you spot the three windmills. The adjacent bridge is decorated with stone-carved pictures of scenes from Don Quixote.
Rising up from the river running under the bridge is a sculpture that may well be the Lady of La Mancha; she aims a level gaze at a housing compound with unmistakeable white-washed walls and red-tiled roofs.
To many, Shanghai’s Breeza Citta di Pujiang sounds more Italian than it looks. Architects Gregotti Associati International aimed for a rectangular grid layout, and architecture defined by simplicity and clean lines.
The result is a modern hybrid of Italian design and Shanghai suburb, with wide streets and long canals that are popular with both anglers and canoers.
Wander far enough from the populated apartment blocks and you’ll find a deserted Venetian-style canal, where a disused gondola floats eerily.
Most emblematic of Holland Town (Gaoqiao) is the windmill that stands on an island in the Gaoqiao Port waterway. To one side of the windmill, a faded sign advertising wedding photography clings to the wooden walls. Though the photography agency is gone, the pretty views across the water are still here.
Gaohe Road, the main thoroughfare, has little open aside from a gym and a martial arts centre. The rows of narrow houses, in colours from asphalt grey to faded orange, are topped by an array of turrets and gables.
At the northeaster end of Gaohe Road, past Shanghai Renjia and the closed St Michael’s Catholic Church, are a few riverside benches from where you can enjoy a panoramic view of this picturesque Dutch town.