Travel about 20 miles outside the center of Shanghai, and you’ll find yourself in a town that looks more like it belongs in rural England than the suburb of a major Chinese metropolis.
Thames Town, named after the river in London, is built in the style of an English village, complete with Victorian terraces, red telephone boxes, and statues of Harry Potter and Winston Churchill.
It’s one of many large-scale developments in China with architecture inspired by other countries (the resort town of Jackson Hole, China—named after the valley in Wyoming—is another).
But many of these projects may soon have to change their names as part of a government campaign to get rid of foreign-sounding words in place names.
‘Big, foreign, and weird’
At the end of last year, the Chinese central government requested local authorities compile lists of apartments, hotels, and office towers with names that fall into three broad categories: “big,” “foreign,” and “weird.”
Names that exaggerate the size or significance of a location with words like “world,” “grand,” “international,” and “central” are subject to revision under the “big” category.
“Weird” names include those that combine numbers and symbols, such as No. 6 Compound and EE-New Town in Shaanxi Province. Names with unintentionally derogatory homonyms also fall under this category.
And then there is the “foreign” category, which includes residential complexes like Shanghai’s Thames Town, the Seine Residence in Tianjin, and the Vienna Hotel chain in Shenzhen and Hainan. Many developers use foreign-sounding names like these to imbue their projects with a veneer of prestige and class.
But critics say the names suggest a lack of confidence in China’s cultural identity and core values.
“It is very common for Chinese companies to adopt foreign names to make their projects sound upscale,” says Zhao Huanyan, chief analyst for Huamei Consultancy’s hotel division. “[Trademark authorities] should avoid approving names that undermine China’s cultural confidence.”
Some developments are exempt from the “foreign” rule, most notably international companies like Siemens and Hilton, which can keep their transliterated Chinese names while doing business in China.
The government will also allow foreign names that “reflect the friendship of the Chinese people with the world community”—including three Lenin parks in Sichuan, Jiangxi and Fujian provinces—to remain.
With the latest round of inspections, tens of thousands of hotels, apartment complexes, and office towers face the prospect of having to rename their buildings.
The resort province of Hainan alone found 84 hotels and residential complexes with names that run afoul of the “foreign” rule, including Californian Sunshine, Provence Holiday, and Heidelberg Residency.
But some companies are pushing back, including Vienna Hotel Management, based in Shenzhen, which operates 15 namesake hotels in Hainan.
The company recently submitted an appeal against the government in a rare bout of defiance.
Some local residents, too, are deriding the crackdown as a waste of time.
“What’s the standard for new names, and who’s going to do the renaming?” says Zhu Yun, who lives in Guangdong Province. “It’s just a waste of people’s energy and money, and will do nothing for national culture or confidence.”
Zhu Min, an octogenarian who also lives in Guangdong, says the scheme has echoes of the Cultural Revolution, when many cultural relics were destroyed in the name of revolution.
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“At the time, a great number of streets, roads, and stores were forced to be renamed,” Zhu says, “because they contained elements of old customs and old culture.”
The debate has also been raging online, with tens of thousands of people airing their views on social media.
“Cultural and national confidence is about respect for multiculturalism,” one person wrote on Weibo, China’s Twitter.
Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.