When we stepped out of the train into the metro station, we were met with the same scene as in every other metro station in Shanghai: Escalators. (Without realizing it, escalators had become the thing that will always represent Shanghai in my mind.) But when we emerged into the humid, hazy early afternoon, our surroundings were noticeably different from what I’d become used to. It was noisy, sure, with heavy clangs from a construction project, but gone were the skyscrapers and endless streams of people. Everything felt wider, open.
We’d arrived in the Songjiang District for a day trip to Thames Town – a curious replica of an English village that had been constructed only to be later abandoned. I’d read about it while researching my trip, and my friend Elizabeth, my companion that day, had lived in Shanghai for months but had never visited. The directions indicated we should catch a local bus, but we decided we would continue on foot.
When I loaded our destination into my phone, the map said we were close to 3 miles away. A long walk, but definitely doable. We set off and, after clearing the road construction, turned down a quiet, though rather sprawling thoroughfare. Immediately I commented on the wide sidewalks and expansive greenery; we were almost entirely surrounded by parks. But oddly, there were hardly any people, hardly any cars. The place in general had a grand, empty feeling about it. And while the lack of traffic could have been due to the public holiday (it was Chinese Labor Day), I kept finding myself thinking, “What on earth is this place?”
Like most places in China, Songjiang has an expansive history. Activity in the region dates back as far as 4000 years. In 751 AD it became an independent county, Huating, before finally becoming Songjiang in 1278 (taking its name from the Song River). Until 1958 it was part of the Jiangsu Province, rather than an extension of Shanghai. Historically, the industries were rice and then cotton, but in recent decades it’s moved on to bigger, more modern things; everything from semiconductor materials to pharmaceuticals.
Songjiang also has a rich cultural history, with famous writers, painters, and calligraphers hailing from the district. It’s also famous for various crafts, including Gu embroidery, a practice using silk strands thinner than human hair to stitch traditional patterns. Many sources site it as the cultural hub of Shanghai, though through our lens we had no idea. Especially after the 45-minute metro ride, through a relatively empty landscape, it took to get us there.
The district has a population of 1.5 million, but as we continued on our walkabout we still saw next to no one. Just more parks, with a few scatterings of houses. We crossed a rather whimsical bridge and pointed out unique trees and ornate buildings. We hadn’t yet made our destination but there was already something oddly English, or at least european, about our surroundings. And the odd feeling of emptiness prevailed until we found our way to Thames Town.
Tired and sweating from the heat, our destination was welcome, but the tour buses and gaggles of tourists less-so. Thames Town was a much larger draw than we anticipated. It felt as though all of the people in the whole district were clustered in that small tourist area. I stopped to snap a photo at the entrance, but from there we wandered in an aimless attitude of confusion. Mind you, we hadn’t really known what to expect, but we had been led to believe “quaint” and “abandoned” would be fitting words for it. Not so. It was an odd neighborhood of apartment blocks. A plain town square with a small fountain and a few shops that turned out to be empty. I’ve never been to an English village but really we could have been anywhere – England, China, back in the States… It was also packed with people, a jarring change from the hour we’d spent making our way there.
The signs were all in Chinese and we must have taken a wrong turn because we never found the tudor homes or cobblestone streets (photos online confirm that we definitely missed a good portion of the neighborhood). Instead, we wandered our way back to the main road through another manicured park. On our way out we noticed a crowd gathered at the edge of a small lake, focused on something hidden from view and taking photos. Curious, we glanced over the barrier only to find an electric boat – a toy – whizzing around slowly in the water. We gave each other the same exasperated look, laughed, and then kept moving. That was all we needed of Thames Town.
It turns out, the mock-British village is part of a much larger project: “One City, Nine Towns.” It was launched in 2001 by the Shanghai Planning Commission with the intention of drawing some of the city’s overwhelming population out toward the suburbs. Other towns included themes from Germany, The Netherlands, Spain, and even Canada (“Canadian Maple Town,” anyone?). The project was unsuccessful in the long run. Very few people could afford the homes and only 7 of the 9 “Towns” were even built. Thames Town now serves as a tourist destination, but the other locations are equally abandoned.
After leaving our rather anticlimactic destination (still puzzled as to the purpose and appeal) and all the tourists with it, we routed ourselves on a different course to a slightly closer metro station. Back out on the streets of Songjiang, the calm in the air returned, as did my small sense of wonder. There were more parks (or perhaps just the other side of previous parks) and buildings loomed all around – some obviously residential, some looked like hotels, others more like government offices or business headquarters – and all seemed empty. As if the whole place was like Thames Town: built with good intentions that never really came to light.
As we wound our way along the sidewalks and cut through parking lots, I made a mental note to look up Songjiang and sort out just where we were, exactly. In doing so, I’ve found plenty of information about the district, but nothing to explain our solitude that day. Perhaps it really was simply a result of the holiday. And though our original destination had been something of a let down, instead Songjiang offered calm and quiet, an escape from the insanity of inner Shanghai. The openness made the air feel cooler, and a light breeze was at our backs as we walked the miles back to the train. There was no feeling of disappointment. The day an embodiment of the saying; sometimes it really is about the journey.