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What makes a city so special? If it’s simply its famous monuments, then you can easily create a replica, like China has made of Paris, known as Tianducheng. But with its cultural and historical significance, complete with its quirks and traditions, Paris has so many aspects that can’t be replicated.
There’s a new Paris called Tianducheng in the suburbs of Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, China. Tianducheng’s construction began in around 2007, with its crowning glory being its 108-metre-tall (354-foot) replica of the Eiffel Tower.
The Eiffel Tower is the most-visited paid monument in the world, so it’s easy to see why another city would want a copy. Of course, the real Eiffel Tower is actually 324 metres (1,063 feet), but it’s a convincing look-alike thanks to the 31 square kilometres (12 square miles) of Parisian-style architecture, fountains and landscaping that reinforce the illusion.
However, the first thing that strikes you when you visit is the deathly silence. The spin-off town was originally planned as a city for around 10,000 inhabitants, though the current population of Tianducheng is 2,000 people, which is minuscule compared to the real City of Light. The peculiar silence is the first indication that something is missing in this replica.
The sense of history that lingers in the air is what attracts many people to Paris. In fact, monuments only gain meaning because of their historical significance, which renders a replica a little pointless.
The continued material presence of monuments, such as the towering Arc de Triomphe and the nearby Place de la Concorde, are actually our best portals to the past.
These monuments allow us to revisit important historical events that have shaped the modern world by proxy of sharing their presence, a little like time travel.
Take the Arc de Triomphe, for example. It’s a travel inspiration not just because it’s always on postcards, but because it has played such an iconic role in Parisian history.
When the city was finally liberated by French and American troops after WWII, for example, General Charles de Gaulle led a triumphant parade down the Champs-Élysées the following day – a celebration that still lives in recent memory for it was at this point that a new government was formed.
If you can’t replicate historical significance, then you also can’t replicate its cultural importance. Take the most iconic site of Paris, the Tour Eiffel.
Believe it or not, but when it was first built, Parisians truly hated the Eiffel Tower. But then, it became a symbol of national pride when the French tricolour flag was hoisted above it to symbolise the regaining of power after the liberation from Nazis. Therefore, that sentiment and significance that remains in people’s hearts is another element that can’t be replicated.
That is why Parisians admire the monument – because it plays a part in their collective history, not just because it’s an unusual piece of architecture that leaves tourists awe-struck.
The same goes for the Champs-Élysées. While it revels in glamour and chic in our contemporary world, this stretch has known darker times.
Not only did the Germans hang swastika flags on the Arc de Triomphe when they were in power, but they also organised military parades with a marching band on the Champs-Élysées and Avenue Foch, for the benefit of the German army photographers and newsreel cameramen to show off their military prowess.
So, being able to reclaim the Champs-Élysées from the Germans as authentically French is why Parisians are so proud this street exists. In this way, building a replica in China doesn’t make much sense – and goes against everything the Champs-Élysées has come to represent.
Even if you can simply build a new Paris, with all the right monuments in all the right places, you can’t replicate all the quirks, traditions and values that belong to the people that live there.
For example, instead of shaking hands, waving hello or hugging, you’ll see French people say hello to friends by leaning forward and touching cheeks, making a light kissing sound. This act of greeting is known as faire la bise and has a whole set of social codes attached specifically to the region, including the number of kisses and which cheek to kiss first.
This social code is uniquely French, which means that only the surface-level of the city can be replicated. Some people would argue that it’s actually the people that make a place so special, so if there are no Parisians, then surely, there would be no Paris.
What makes visiting the Sacré-Coeur in Montmartre so special isn’t just the architecture of which you can take a photograph. It’s the fabulous street entertainment, typically Parisian, that greets you as you sit down with a croissant on the steps.
Take mime artistry, for example. This fabulously silly French art still happens on the streets of Paris – it’s not just a myth from the movies – and the Sacré-Coeur has become a hotspot for some of the city’s most talented street artists.
Climb the 222 stairs to the top and you’ll be treated not only to the most breathtaking view of Paris, spreading right across the city, but also to football tricksters, musicians and amusing mime artists reaping chaos with local traffic below.
Musicians playing the accordion is another tradition associated with Paris. You’ll hear it on the metro, you’ll hear it on the streets – there’s no instrument more iconic than the accordion, made famous in the French film Amélie.
In this way, if somewhere wants to build a new Sacré-Coeur, there needs to be all the fascinating characters you’d find at the original – such as mime artists and accordion musicians – for it to be a convincing replica. In China, the deathly silence is broken only by the sound of clicking cameras, not by an accordion.
There are some things that a replica could do better than an original and that includes weather. But some people would argue that you should take the good with the bad and appreciate a destination for all it has to offer.
Everyone knows it rains a lot in Paris, but you only really realise how heavy it can be when you get caught in one of its deluges. There’s even a French idiom, Il pleut des cordes (it’s raining ropes), for a poetically accurate take on the force of Parisian rainfalls, falling endlessly like ropes.
This weather has inspired poets and artists for centuries and has come to represent the city’s personality. Therefore, it should remain a part of the city’s character – and Paris’ weather is definitely an aspect that can’t be replicated.