Sunday, May 04, 2008

california, here we come!

A guard wearing a one-size-too-big military uniform salutes my driver through the gate at the grand entrance to Orange County. Suddenly we’re transported from China to, well, somewhere else. Where, exactly, is hard to say. It would be strange enough if Orange County, this gated community near the Beijing airport, were the straight-up replica of Southern California it claims to be. But it is stranger than that. The development, 45 minutes up the freeway from Beijing’s better-known Forbidden City, has the appearance of a Disney theme park where someone mixed up all the different sections—a smidgen of Epcot’s faux Paris intermingled with Main Street U.S.A.’s Americana. At Orange County, California-style ranch houses sit alongside English Tudors and a French-style formal garden complete with stately fountains (turned off for the winter). The street signs of weathered wood held together with rusty spikes conjure the Old West of Durango while the community clubhouse, called the Rive Gauche Town Center, has a mansard roof typical of a French country estate. The totem poles inside recall the Pacific Northwest and the fireplace mantlepiece is carved in the shape of English-language books, including HamletMacbeth, and the erroneously titled Moby-Dock. So far from the West, the distinctions between France and America, let alone Colorado and California, get lost. (The Chinese would surely have a similar laugh at our expense for the popularity of “pan-Asian” restaurants Stateside.) I requested a Sunday tour, hoping that people would be enjoying the one-day Chinese weekend in their yards. But here in Orange County, China, just days after Christmas, it is not exactly rollerblading weather. The fake lake is frozen solid. A brave, bundled-up grandmother takes a baby carriage out for stroll. But for most, weekend fresh air is what you get when you walk from your home to your SUV. Though distinctly lacking in warm California sun, Orange County’s promotional brochures tout it as “flown over fresh to Beijing,” and even “pure American.” And there is at least some truth in advertising. The project, whose 143-unit first phase opened in 2001 at a ceremony including American diplomats and McDonald’s cheeseburgers, was designed by a trio of design firms from California’s Orange County, headed by Bassenian Lagoni Architects, a leading designer of McMansions that has been dubbed one of the most influential architects you’ve never heard of by The Wall Street Journal.

No comments: