In China, there's a tradition of renting out your own room at a restaurant to have some privacy while dining. That doesn't seem necessary in Tianducheng, a town a couple hours outside Shanghai, where the only restaurant with actual customers is a Japanese teppanyaki joint called Hokkaido. The French restaurant next to Hokkaido is totally empty. This is especially strange because Tianducheng is the Paris of China.
No, really, it's China's Paris. A 108-meter Eiffel tower stands tall behind blocks upon blocks of Haussmann-style buildings. Bronze statues of Greek gods and goddesses sprawl out in Western-style fountains. A cafe called Cristina advertises its coffee and tea.
It'd all be pretty convincing if it weren't empty. Only a small portion of the apartments are actually occupied. Few people wander the streets. The fountains aren't running. And Cristina's coffee? Not real. It's a façade put there for decoration. This billion-dollar neighborhood was constructed with the hopes of attracting 10,000 residents. Under 2,000 came.
Ghost-town neighborhoods are scattered throughout China, where developers anticipate, and sometimes over-anticipate, China's booming economic growth.
As I wander, I don't hear the car horns and bustle of a typical Chinese city. I hear only the faint strains of "Gangnam Style" coming from a shop down the road.
It's weird, but eating's weirder.
In the chateau-like mansion of Tianducheng Resort sits Provence Restaurant, the only French restaurant in this entire "francophile" metropolis. I once lived in France, and while, yes, I'm here to gawk at this bizarre town, I'm mostly here to eat.
Provence has some French trappings: charming pink-and-yellow wallpaper, wide French windows, paintings of Provençal lavender fields strung up on its walls. But on the other hand, it's very much a Chinese restaurant: fluorescent-bright lights on the ceiling, a grid like banquet-hall-style layout of square tables, and waitresses in stiff, matching uniforms.
The service was great. Although it was peak lunch hour, my party was the only one in the restaurant. A waitress sat us and filled our cups with tea. She then hovered over me as I scrolled through the iPad menu, stopping me occasionally to point and say, "This is delicious." Three others stood behind her to watch.
The menu was certainly not French. The offerings were far more like those in a typical upscale Chinese restaurant: cold cuts of meat and duck tongues, various fish soups, hot pots of beef and pork, platters of stir-fried vegetables and noodles, and luxuries like sea cucumber and shark's fin.
Still, a handful Western options appeared on my LED screen. There were Coquilles St. Jacques, broiled scallops like my French host mother used to make me. There was foie gras, although when I ordered it, the waitress said they were out. And then there was a Western-style roast chicken, albeit prepared with the chicken's feet included.
The roast chicken was phenomenal—although, reader be warned, my judgment may be marred by all these months in China sans Western-style roasts. Regardless, the chicken was tender, juicy and just barely seasoned so that the flavor of the meat could shine. Corn, mushrooms and fat bows of kelp floated in its fatty soup.
The Coquilles St. Jacques were also good, they just weren't Coquilles St. Jacques. They were actually a pile of thin noodles scrambled with shredded crabmeat and egg. And the Chinese Chinese food—the kind that wasn't even trying to masquerade as French—was punchy and expertly prepared. My thin slices of beef in a fiery red broth of spices testified to that.
After finishing, I called over our waitress and asked, "Do you have bread?"
"What?" she answered, confused.
This was, admittedly, a test. I'd pretty much affirmed at this point that fake France, even its restaurant, wasn't anything like real France. I needed one final confirmation.
In France, you don't ask for bread. It's just there. Delicious fat hunks of baguette in a basket on your table. At fake Paris's Provence Restaurant, the waitress runs frantically to the kitchen and gets the chef to make you and your Western friends two slices of toast each. On sandwich bread.
You can't exactly fault a restaurant in the suburbs of Hangzhou, China for not having the most authentic French food. You can more convincingly, however, fault a developer for investing $1 billion into a fake Paris in a seemingly random, sparsely populated Chinese suburb.
And I mean really sparsely populated. I'm beginning to wonder, are the waitresses staring at me because I'm a foreigner? Or are they staring at me just because I'm a person?
If current trends continue, Paris won't be the only bizarrely empty suburb of China. In fact, a bullet train from Beijing to Shanghai reveals just that: cranes hoisted on skeletons of buildings as far as the eye can see.
Maybe next year it'll be fake Rome.