We Visited China’s Surreal Replica English Market Town

By Aron Solomons, September 12, 2019

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Thames Town is a place that I have wanted to visit ever since landing in Shanghai and reading about it in the deepest, darkest corner of the internet – Reddit.

For those that have better things to do than read about sub-par tourist destinations on the internet (jokes on you, you’re doing it right now) Thames Town was built in 2006 as part of a series of luxury European-style towns for Shanghai elites. Unfortunately, despite the developer’s best intentions, the rich of our beloved city had better ways to spend their money than on a mock Tudor house next to a knock-off version of a West England cathedral.

From what can be read online, it had become quasi-empty, except for the occasional couple shooting wedding photos. But this was all hearsay, because no one has ever wanted to go with me. Conversations with friends would go something like this:

Polite But Disinterested Friend: What is it exactly?

Me: It’s a town on the outskirts of Shanghai that is designed to look like an English market town.

PBDF: Oh right, is there anything particularly impressive about it? 

Me: No. Not really.

PBDF: Any interesting shops or restaurants?

Me: There are a few not terrible ones, according to Dianping.

PBDF: Is it easy to get to?

Me: About an hour by metro and then a 20 minute taxi.

PBDF: Anything else?

Me: I think it has a statue of Harry Potter.

PBDF: I think I’ll pass. Thanks Aron.

It takes a certain type of masochist to actively seek out something that is seemingly pretty terrible. But a friend with a birthday and a lack of options was the catalyst to find out if we could really experience a taste of home just outside of Songjiang. So England shirts, bowler hats and full Harry Potter outfits prepared – a group of us made our way.

On arrival, having tormented our taxi driver with enthusiastic renditions of the Spice Girls and the Venga Boys (before someone pointed out that the latter was Dutch) there were a few immediate reminders of the UK. Random red telephone boxes dotted around, strange statues of random white people sitting on benches and even a Mini Cooper. This was unfortunately offset by a strange two-meter-tall transformer next to it.

Possibly the only red telephone box with a China Telecom logo.

The lay of the land.

Our first mission was to get some real English food. I know what you’re thinking – who wants English food? It’s like requesting German stand up comedy. But sometimes a man wants fish and chips. However, similar to how it is in the UK, the majority of the restaurants in Thames Town turned out to be European.

After much searching we found an “English style restaurant” – The Granger & Co. After ordering a few portions of palatable fish and chips, we were ready to see what the town had to offer.

Hoorah! We found Fish and chips!

Better than German stand up comedy.

In defense of the town, the streets did represent a typical English market town – even if ‘Oxford Street’ resembled more a side street in a village than the UK’s most popular shopping thoroughfare. There also exists statues of famous Brits (both real and fictional) dotted around. So if you want to play “find the random statue of Winston Churchill” then this is the place for you. We managed to find both Winston and Harry Potter.

Thames Town is the perfect place to play find the strange statue.

The boy wizard.

The tour de force is a church slap-bang in the middle of town. At first, I thought it was meant to be St Paul’s Cathedral, but after a bit of research it turns out it is modeled off Christ Church in Bristol. Curious, and being the good god-fearing Christian (okay, an apathetic Jew) we wanted to look inside. Would it be a real church? Or, like everything else here, a hollow tribute? Sure enough, inside were pews and, most spectacularly of all, a Chinese Jesus on the stained glass windows.

1833519737.jpgLook closely at the man in the yellow clothes and you can make out Chinese Jesus.

Just like the inside of a church confessional booth, the dominant feeling in Thames Town is one of eerie quietness. Shanghai doesn’t do quiet. Shanghai is the opposite. And every tourist attraction is normally rammed on the weekend. Not the case here. If you look into the windows above the ground level shops, they are all empty. There is a shell of a theater that has clearly not been used in years.

After a few awkward group photos, and taking some more photos of couples taking wedding photos, it was time to go. If you have an inner masochist that likes trying to enjoy bad things in the name of irony, then, Thames Town is for you. We’d had fish and chips, posed for pictures with both Harry and Winston, but we can’t say any of us really felt close to home.

Click here for a listing for Thames Town. The nearest Shanghai Metro station to Thames Town is Songjiang Xincheng on Line 9. From there you can take a 15-minute taxi. A taxi from Shanghai to Thames Town takes about an hour costs around RMB200.

Click here for more stories my Aron Solomons

[Cover image via Wiki, all other images by Aron Solomons for That’s]

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