Three types of people buy European or American-style villas in China, says Peng Rong, marketing director for real estate agent Yuan He. “The first has a lot of money but a low education. They like the luxury baroque, Tudor or rococo-style villas: golden, shining and splendid. The second comes from a rich family and has a high education. They prefer low-key and simple. The third are tuhao [literally “local tyrant”, slang for nouveau riche] from [the mining province] Shanxi. They have money but less knowledge. They just want to own the biggest and the best.”
As China’s economy has boomed, so has the rise of the “McMansion” – oversized, mass-produced expensive villas. Over the past decade, wealthy locals have moved into gated compounds that mimic the west. Designs range from the tacky (such as recreations of Versailles and the White House) to the tasteful.
“Chinese homeowners have embraced these European-style homes as a way to showcase their worldliness and success,” says Bianca Bosker, author of Architectural Mimicry in Contemporary China . “The baroque, Tudor and beaux-arts styles have become the architectural equivalent of a Chanel logo on a purse.”
An hour’s drive from central Beijing is one such compound. Clusters of Spanish, Italian and French-style villas on cobbled streets surround an imposing Roman-style clubhouse that overlooks a frozen lake and man-made hills. Inside the clubhouse are entertainment rooms named after Italian cities and manned by staff in ill-fitting suits. The rooms are available to book for a minimum fee of Rmb3,000 (£286). “Milan” has a strobe disco, “Venice” has karaoke and “Florence” has faux white-leather sofas and silver-and-gold brocade curtains.
For residents, the A Kai Di Ya Villa complex promises access to a western lifestyle: amenities include international schools, a golf course and a riding club. The façades may already be tired-looking just three years since its launch, but the compound, where homes cost Rmb36,000 per sq metre, sold out last October.
Many of China’s smartest compounds vie to outdo each other in opulence. In Beijing, Yuhe River Castle offers palatial homes of up to 5,000 sq metres built with imported German limestone. In Shanghai, villas on the Emperor Zillah estate boasts personal massage baths and internal lifts. And in the northern port city of Dalian, the British-style Vanke Xishan villa complex even has an English butler service.
Before 1937, European-style homes occupied by single families were prevalent in cities with foreign concessions such as Qingdao and Shanghai. After the communists came to power most detached homes were divided into multiple properties. Today the unbridled pursuit of capitalism – or “socialism with Chinese characteristics” – has provided not only more cash but limitless choice. The choice to live in an exotic foreign-style villa denotes a newfound freedom and hints at old-world wealth. Elaborate English names given to the compounds, such as “Majesty Manor” and “Top Aristocrat”, conjure up images of an upper class.
Adopting western architecture has also helped fill a cultural void. During the Cultural Revolution the country destroyed much of its own heritage. Foreign design has therefore filled a gap. Bosker argues that homes exhibiting Chinese elements were also shunned in the recent past due to their equations with struggle and poverty. Instead, many looked to architectural styles in Europe and the US which were “associated with money, power and cultural influence. This is why we see so many copies of places like the White House and Versailles – clear emblems of achievement”.
There are also practical reasons for living in a villa. The vast metropolises of Shanghai and Beijing are smoggy, congested and cramped. By moving to the city’s fringes, homeowners have room for a car (or two), a large garden and can enjoy slightly cleaner air.
Taking a stroll through the vast Tomson Riviera Garden in Pudong, Shanghai, is like being teleported to a well-heeled US suburb. Wide empty streets are decked with street lamps and trees. Parked outside different houses are a roster of smart cars including a red Jaguar and a Rolls-Royce. The complex is home to a golf course and tennis courts. The only giveaways that this is Asia are a scattering of Chinese charms and piles of shoes heaped outside front doors.
Tomson Riviera is selling a four-bedroom villa with a wraparound balcony and garden for Rmb43m (£4.1m), although, as with many new Chinese compounds, this will only buy you a concrete shell. The buyer has to install everything else themselves, from the flooring to the interior design – a process that could cost a further Rmb3m to Rmb5m. Many go to companies such as Shanghai Hinko Design to do the work for them. Hinko’s billboards project aspirational European-style living: in one ad an opulent drawing room is decked with marble floors, Parisian furniture and ostentatious chandeliers. “Clients like bling,”, says Gu Chengyun, a Tomson estate agent.
European furnishings may be in vogue but interiors still cater to Chinese functionality. Many villas, for example, are built with both a western and Chinese kitchen – the former is for show and the latter to do the cooking. Rich families commonly have a live-in ayi or maid so servant quarters are essential.
Chip Pierson, principal of Dahlin Group Architecture, which has been designing villas in China since 2001, says that dining rooms are often built to seat 20 to 25 people, while basements will feature cinemas or pools.
Central Construction Real Estate Agent in Shanghai has a five-bedroom villa in a compound with an indoor pool, fitness room and spa on sale for Rmb33.3m. Shanghai Lv Cheng Real Estate is offering a seven-bedroom villa for Rmb55m.
Still, villas remain a relatively niche market. And the government has placed restrictions on the development of new compounds. Due to land scarcity in big cities, complexes can now only be built if they have mixed usage on site, combining, for example, standalone villas, semi-detached town houses and high-rises.
In the past, villas were often bought as investment properties, leading to gigantic compounds that stood eerily empty. Today most people purchase villas to live in. Tastes are also changing. As China has gained increasing global clout, renovated courtyards, a traditional Chinese feature in which rooms surround an inner outdoor space, have become more coveted. For now, though, Tudor, baroque, and rococo remain the styles of choice for the local tyrants.