National Geographic Geography Intern Hadrien Picq is a recent geography graduate who grew up in periphery of Paris before escaping to California. He has a couple words of advice for those intending to visit the French’s capital: don’t feed the Parisians, prepare to be underwhelmed by the Mona Lisa, and take advantage of the high speed train to visit the countryside. Also, when ordering a cheese omelet please say “omelette au fromage”, vous savez qui vous êtes.
The term doppelgänger translates from the German’s Doppel (double) and gänger (walker), otherwise meaning “ghost double.” In folklore, a doppelgänger is often an omen of bad luck, danger and even death. A doppelgänger is presumably a premonition of a future in which your spirit is trapped in the physical world and haunts the living.
Did you know that the city of Paris has a doppelgänger?
Paris is contrary to what one might think about death and ghosts, perhaps only with the exception of a charming excursion into the catacombs. Paris, the place that is known through the collective imagination, is rather known as the city of lights, of love, of liberty.
There is more to Paris than what is shown on postcards. As you might expect from a globalized metropolis, the capital certainly has a dark underbelly; but that is neither the subject nor the reason of its ghostly doppelgänger reflection.
Where does a doppelgänger come from?
Most would imagine that a ghost-double is a supernatural manifestation of a dark hidden secret, all-consuming guilt and regrets or the product of a spell from a spiteful party. But I have my own theory: a doppelgänger exists despite the original’s knowing of its existence. In fact, the doppelgänger may not realize the existence of the original either. A doppelgänger is tragic because its existence is bound to an inexplicably false perception of self, cursed by an ascribed identity.
But back to Paris: how can a city have a doppelgänger?
To understand, we must journey east 5,000 miles from Paris south to a latitude close to Cairo’s. We arrive at our destination in the southeast tropical province of Zhejiang, China, where an uncanny sight springs on the horizon. Far from the Seine River, close to the banks of the Shangtang, the Eiffel Tower looms above the Grand Boulevard and prosperous Parisian apartments.
Bienvenue à Tianducheng, the idyllic Paris the world has been waiting for. That’s right: a Paris without pestering Parisians, or pestering tourists for that matter!
In fact, it’s a Paris with nearly no one: a ghost town! But no, that’s not quite accurate either.
Now don’t think I am prejudiced vis-à-vis Tianducheng because of its out-of-place one-third sized Eiffel Tower replica. Is it odd? Surely, but so is the half-sized replica in the Mohave desert (Las Vegas, NV), or the Tokyo Tower, similar in design and superior in height. Tianducheng was built in 2007 as an extravagant development project to attract affluent Francophiles, but it does not explain why Tianducheng is Paris’ doppelgänger.
Tianducheng is a doppelgänger because of its identity and how it came to be. It’s the story of China’s race to urbanization, which has experienced a staggering increase from 36% to 52% of the overall population in just the past ten years. Paradoxically, as China’s urban population boomed, entire cities have been built from scratch but remain void of people years after completion. By some estimates, 64 million residences in China remain empty, enough to accommodate the 200 million Chinese who migrated into cities in the last 10 years.
Relatively speaking, Tianducheng is not a huge bust. The city was intended to host just 10,000 inhabitants and its population is one tenth of that. A similar development project, Thames Town (a replica of an English village), met similar inhabitation levels. And another development project, based on New York’s Manhattan, is in the works. Construction accounts for 13% of China’s GDP, produces and consumes over half of the world cement, enough apparently for the government to announce plans to build 20 cities a year for the next 20.
Tianducheng, Thames Town, and similar projects have been described commonly as “ghost towns,” but I believe that’s incorrect. Ghost towns are abandoned places with histories and artifacts: some examples include the Incan city of Machu Picchu, the radioactive Ukrainian city of Chernobyl and various mining villages throughout the world.
These new sprawling cities of China are different. They are doppelgängers built with anticipation, prepackaged, awaiting the stimulus of a burgeoning population for the breath of prosperity. Some remain empty, some experience the slow but steady influx of population, but all experience a stalled potential based on an ascribed identity. They are not ghost towns because they have yet to experience their full lives.
Tianducheng doesn’t reflect Paris for what it is or will become, but offers the illusion of what Paris might or should be. That is because an identity cannot be cloned. A city is the sum of its parts, i.e. its inhabitants, without which is only a monumental ruin. It is the people that dwell within places that are both influenced and shaped by their geographies. And beyond Tianducheng’s false perception of itself lies the reflection of a darker reality in a fast-changing country.
Written by Hadrien Picq, National Geographic’s Center for Geo-Education