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Inside Shenzhen

Rich people without culture like artifice, Mr. Zhou had said. He was only partly right. Rich people with culture like artifice, too. The theme parks, though influenced by American models, are enjoyed in the same spirit as the traditional miniature Chinese landscape gardens, which inspired English landscape gardens of the 18th century with their follies, their Chinese bridges, their artificial ruins. There are four famous Qing dynasty gardens scattered around the Pearl River Delta. In one of them, the Qinghui garden in the town of Shunde, my eye was caught by a beautiful green bamboo tree climbing the wall of the main house, with a bird's nest at the top. The whole thing was crafted artfully out of clay.

THE IDEA OF BUILDING CITIES FROM SCRATCH IS NOT NEW IN CHINA. Great cities have been razed and built again and again throughout Chinese history. A new dynasty would often decide where its capital should be, and the city would be built. Nothing organic about that. This dynamic artificiality, which persists to this day, caught the attention of at least one famous European architect, Rem Koolhaas. Together with his students at Harvard he has prepared a book on the Pearl River Delta, to be published this year. But however intriguing the delta may be, no Western architect has volunteered to live there. I wanted to meet some of the people who had actually designed this new urban jungle.

To say that Liu Ming, one of the architects of Premier Realty Consultants in Guangzhou, is ambivalent about the state of architecture in China would be an understatement. She tells me how most projects work. The government, local or central, is the main client. Speed is of the essence. Most bureaucrats want things to look modern and imposing, at the lowest possible cost. There are, however, not nearly enough architects to undertake the transformation of southern China. What usually happens is that clients are shown photographs of buildings in Hong Kong, Taipei, and Singapore, and they pick the ones they like. "Naturally," says Ms. Liu, "these buildings are often utterly unsuited to the location. And the result is that every place in China is beginning to look the same." Still, she says, with a look that expressed hope more than conviction, "sometimes they listen to expert advice."

Shunde, an old town about halfway between Guangzhou and Zhuhai, is the perfect place to see the transformation of the Pearl River Delta in action. I drive down from Guangzhou with Mr. Peng, a young architect from Premier Realty Consultants. His firm is involved in the building of a brand new town, a new Shunde, next to the original one.

Old Shunde has a remarkable history. It was once the center of Cantonese culture, known for its gardens and cuisine. During World War II, when the Japanese choked off food supplies, two-thirds of the population fled to Southeast Asia or the United States. As Mr. Peng is telling me this, I keep wondering whether we have reached Shunde yet. I see endless rows of houses, factories, and bars decorated with fairy lights. "No, these are just outskirts," he says. Much of the delta seems to consist of "outskirts." But finally we arrive in old Shunde, which turns out not to be as old as I thought.

The narrow shopping streets look as though they were built about 10 years ago. The city hall is a large new building with the usual façade of blue glass windows. After visiting the Qing dynasty garden, we come to the very center of town. The dust has barely settled. Everything is brand-new. But the style of architecture is not. Curiously, the shop houses, with their Neoclassical colonnades, are modeled on colonial Hong Kong's. In the middle is a little square with an elevator behind glass that seems to be going nowhere and various fast-food places. It's called Pizza Plaza.

Old Shunde seems pleasant enough, and I wonder why there is a desire for a new Shunde. "They think they need something bigger," says Mr. Peng, sounding less than convinced himself. "You see, these towns are very rich." We drive to the new town. At first all I can see are empty suburban houses, a large hotel on a lake, in palatial Chinese style, and a small village. "Look there," says Mr. Peng. And there, rising from the rice paddies, is the city hall, modeled on Capitol Hill, in a town that barely even exists. Most of the new town is yet to be built, and so far nobody wants to move to it. To coax people, Mr. Peng says, the government will build a library, a theater, a convention center, perhaps even an airport. What about the village?I ask. Well, the villagers cannot be physically removed from their houses, but their farmland will disappear. So what will they do?"Work in the supermarkets," answers Mr. Peng.

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