They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery but is this taking it a tad bit too far? In the series Paris Syndrome, photographer François Prost introduces us to China’s Tianducheng, a suburb of Hangzhou, where we find an unabashed, life-sized, liveable version of Paris: an entire knockoff city that blows all Chinese knockoffs out of the water.
Prost photographed various landmarks around Tianducheng, documenting the surreal 100-meter high Eiffel Tower, Hausmannian buildings, public statues, and the Versailles-inspired garden, placing them beside their authentic Parisian counterparts. The result is a mind-blowing game of Spot the Difference. Until the subtle clues like the presence of Chinese characters or laundry hanging from windows sink in, you’ll probably find yourself squinting at the image, trying to figure out why it’s slightly off…
Built in 2007, Tianducheng expected to attract droves of potential middle-class citizens but fell to a ghost town status when real estate failed to pick up. The neighborhood was used mostly for wedding photography and curious passers-by. But things may be looking up: the population has reportedly risen to 30,000 inhabitants in 2017, and continues to grow.
#1 Top: China, Bottom: Paris
“The monuments look the same, but it’s a totally different context,” says Prost. He explores the weirdness in Paris Syndrome, a surreal photo series juxtaposing street scenes from the real Paris with their Tianducheng knockoffs. “What I like about seeing them side-by-side is that you’re kind of lost,” Prost says. “You don’t know which is the original or which is the copy.”
#2 Top: China, Bottom: Paris
Tianducheng opened in 2007 with enough room for 100,000 inhabitants—presumably some who wish they lived in the real Paris. But it’s less an exact copy than a theme park-like mish-mash; the Eiffel Tower sits within the gardens of Versailles, and—more inexplicably—near the Arena of Nimes, a Roman amphitheater in southern France. “They try to mix those clichés in a different way,” Prost says. “There’s not much sense behind it.”
#3 Top: China, Bottom: Paris
Prost became fascinated by the so-called “duplitecture” several years ago after learning about China’s European knockoffs—Dutch windmills, Venetian canals, and the like. But it wasn’t until seeing a fake version of his own city, Paris, in a Romain Gavra’s music video that he decided to investigate. So last October, he flew to Hangzhou, took an hour-long taxi to Tianducheng, and checked into an Airbnb right next to the Eiffel Tower.
He immediately set out exploring. The architecture looked surprisingly real, but he kept seeing things he didn’t in Paris—unsightly air conditioners dangling from windows, whole families piled onto single scooters, workers sweeping the streets with straw brooms. The buildings themselves lacked any trace of time, and the faces of some statues seemed slightly off. “Even when you try to copy it as best as possible, there’s always a bit of awkwardness, some details that are not right,” Prost says.
#4 Top: China, Bottom: Paris
He spent a week wandering Tianducheng with his DSLR and tripod. After returning home, he organized the photos into categories for buildings, monuments, and people. Then he set out systematically documenting their real counterparts—about 50 total—always shooting in the same soft light.
The matches are sometimes eerily close, but there’s almost always a detail or two that signals something is off. That’s what makes them fascinating. Tianducheng doesn’t completely look like France, but it’s not exactly China, either.