BY AARON FOX-LERNER
You can find a replica of a Chinese copy of a French village in the Santa Monica Mountains in California. It’s up in the hills a bit, but if you don’t mind dirt roads it’s possible to drive all the way there.
It was supposed to be for a movie. The American spy hero has to stop a mercenary sleeper cell in the Chinese military from carrying out a coup and nuking America. One of the screenwriters had read about these fake European villages they have in China and decided to set an action sequence there. They couldn’t shoot the film in China if the story had bad guys in the Chinese government, so they needed a version in America.
First they sent a set designer out to China. He mapped and exhaustively photographed a suburban real estate development outside of Shijiazhuang that was supposed to be like a French village. After he drafted his own version of that copy, I was part of the team hired to build the set.
I worked nonstop on this project for six days every week and then went on weekend benders to relieve the stress. There wasn’t much time for anything else, although the girlfriend did drag me to dim sum in Chinatown one Sunday morning when I had a hangover that could kill a moose. I sat there amongst all the steam carts, staring dimly at her friends across the lazy susan, and trying to explain what I was working on.
“So it’s like a French town full of Chinese people?” someone asked me.
“Well,” I said as I tried to flag down an old lady with a red perm and a cart full of shrimp dumplings, “not really. I mean, there’s not a lot of people there.”
“But it’s supposed to be a Chinese city, right?”
“It’s a real estate development outside of a Chinese city, built more to Chinese specifications than French ones. I don’t think they sold that many apartments, and those who do buy apartments sometimes do it more as an investment than a place to live, so the whole place mainly has fake empty storefronts.”
“And China is, like, full of these imitation European towns?”
“I guess so.”
“God, that whole country is so weird.”
I nodded my assent while looking out the window
at the imitation pagodas placed on all the surrounding Chinatown buildings.
One day later and I was back to work. All the details had to be perfect. The signage had to have the same mistakes that the real copy had. The storefronts had to be empty, with mannequins and cardboard displays set up in the right way. The streets had to be laid out exactly right. We were copying the town more exactly than it had copied any French village.
I’m an obsessive when I work, so I sweated to make it all exact. When I was airbrushing benches I made them look slightly worn from the elements, not from use. I gave storefronts the appearance of a light dust upon the outer windowsills. I ensured that the paint tone on buildings was more sterile than warm. After working for long enough I started to feel trapped by the whole endeavor, slaving over someone else’s copy of a copy, a project I had no claim over.
But by the next weekend I’d come to realize that I could use the job as a conversation piece. People wanted to hear about it, both as a window into China and as some layered item of post-modernity. I’d never actually seen these places, but I figured I’d read enough articles about them to talk confidently. It was just like when I did a semester abroad in Shanghai and people asked me to explain an entire country to them after I’d returned. Even after having lived there briefly, I still didn’t really know that much about China, but I couldn’t stop myself from expounding upon what it was like to those who were curious.
I felt most ridiculous when explaining things to my grandfather. He was 93 and hard of hearing, so I’d find myself proclaiming statements like “THEY’RE BASICALLY TEARING DOWN ALL THE AUTHENTIC CHINESE ARCHITECTURE TO BUILD MALLS AND APARTMENT COMPLEXES” loud enough for his whole building to hear. The more he asked me to explain things the more ridiculous and out of my depth I felt, but he so earnestly wanted to know.
And if it hadn’t been for my grandfather I never would have built the replica of the Chinese copy of the French village. He’d been a union lawyer for a long time and had some connections in the stagehands union. It was practically a rite of passage in my family that you’d graduate college and be offered some kind of job with them.
“Why would I want to join the stagehands union?” my father said when offered the job.
“What kind of work would I even be doing there?” my aunt asked.
“Grandpa, that’s really nice, but not the sort of thing I’m looking for,” my brother told him.
“Sorry, I just want a job that gives me more time to focus on my art,” I said to him.
Then the recession hit. A year later I was bussing tables and living in my parent’s extra room.
“So, uh...do you think there’s still a job available for me as a stagehand?” I asked him.
He managed to get me something better. I had some experience with practical design and I was good with my hands, so he set me up with a job in set construction. I got the position after a series of introductions to various Italian-American men who all shook my hand with death grips and said “so, you’re Hymie Birschbaum’s grandson!” when they met me. Now a few years later my work as a set builder had led me back to my old role of explaining China.
“Yeah,” I told a small crowd at my friend’s house party, moving my hands for emphasis while trying not to spill my rum and coke, “they have these places, like, all over China. Replicas of European villages or cities. And they’re all like, these crazy ghost towns. Like abandoned theme park versions of British or Bavarian or French villages or whatever.”
“So they’re perfect copies?” someone asked me.
“No, they’re like super garish. They’re totally distinguishable from the real thing.”
“So...kinda like St. Petersburg?”
“I dunno, I don’t think they really copy Russian style cities.”
“No, I mean St. Petersburg is built in a replica French style. The Russians thought that France was the height of refinement, and they kind of built St. Petersburg all at once, so they did it in French rococo or whatever style. The whole main part of the city is imitation French architecture.”
“Well,” I said, “I’m sure the ones in China are different. I mean, they’re, like, really cheap and really fake. And besides, St. Petersburg is thousands of years old, these were just built.”
“So did you see any of these places when you were in China?” someone else asked.
“No, I didn’t really have a chance to. I was in Shanghai and these developments are built further outside of the city centers. I guess they have the Bund in Shanghai, but those buildings were actually built by Westerners a hundred years ago, so it doesn’t count as an imitation.”
I kept hanging out and drinking that night until I couldn’t remember. I assume eventually the girlfriend drove us both home. She wouldn’t speak to me the next day, although I don’t know why. Everyone said I was just being normally drunk that night, not getting into fights or running out into the street or anything like that.
And then when we were almost finished with the fake town, they canceled the whole project. The studio was afraid that having Chinese villains would piss off the Chinese government and hurt the distribution of their other films. In a last minute change the villain would now be part of the North Korean government, and there were no imitation French towns in North Korea. So we left the whole set abandoned up in the Santa Monica Mountains.
In a real bit of serendipitous timing, my girlfriend decided to break up with me the day the project was canceled. And kicked me out of our house. Or, as she pointed out, her house: it was her name on the lease for the small Spanish-style bungalow we shared in Echo Park. Not that I think Spain even has houses that look like our house (her house), but whatever.
She gave me less than a day to pack up all my stuff. By the end of it I had just enough to fill the trunk of my car. I left anything I didn’t need with her. I told her she could keep all my art, nobody else wanted it. Then I got in my car and drove away without a destination in mind. I didn’t want to sleep on anyone’s couch. Too pathetic. I ended up with a bottle of bourbon up in the hills, at the fake French/Chinese town.
I sat on an ornate painted plastic bench there drinking and scrolling through photos on my phone. First she’s wearing sunglasses at the replica Roman villa in Hearst castle during our road trip to San Francisco. And then she’s with me under the soft Autumn sunshine in the Cloisters from our trip to New York; one moment she’s in a rebuilt medieval Italian monastery, the next swipe she’s leaving the monastery and you can see New Jersey beyond it, one more swipe and she’s standing at an ugly subway platform. I swipe a couple hundred times more and then there are no photos. She’s gone.
I hadn’t planned to stay overnight, but I drank a bit more than I intended and passed out behind one of the facades that I’d labored on. The next morning, a young couple pulled up in a sky blue 90s Ford, kicking up dust behind their wheels.
“Are you here to see the Chinese city too?” they asked me.
“I built the Chinese city,” I told them.
Word had spread. The set had been mentioned on some blogs and popped up in forums about urban exploration. People mentioned it as a chance to explore the real China without leaving Los Angeles. I stayed there all day, finishing off the rest of the bottle. Later in the afternoon a man in designer glasses drove up in a Prius. This time I didn’t mention having built the set, just pretended I was also sightseeing.
I slept there again that night and woke up early the next day. I strolled through the copy of the fake and wondered if the streets felt this empty in China too. Later I drove down to a cafe and used their wifi to look for apartments, but went back to the set when I needed a place to sleep.
Apartment hunting proved to be hard. I’d shower at friends’ places, eat cheap restaurant food, use outlets and internet in cafes, linger for long periods of time in bookstores and bars. Occasionally I’d run into visitors at the fake town, generally well-educated curiosity seekers come to gawp at the oddity of China’s apparent unoriginality. It’s so strange, they’d say to me. And I’d always agree with them, though I’d gotten pretty used to the place.
I lived there longer than I ever intended, getting by thanks to a spell of perfect LA weather, temperate and dry. I was still there long after I thought I’d find an apartment. I was still there after I’d cycled through all my friends’ houses for laundry and showers. I was still there after the baristas at several cafes knew me by first name.
The facades became nothing more than buildings, the same as you’d find at any other place. Only the occasional visitors reminded me how out of place both the solitude and the constructed village both were. I figured the visitors cared more about these places than the Chinese did. They treated the set as if it were the real thing. Which I suppose it practically was. For them this was just as good, maybe even better considering the extra layers of irony it was swaddled in.
“God,” they’d say as they looked around at the cheap imitations of rustic French buildings, “I can’t imagine anyone living in a place like this.”
“Neither can I,” I said. “It’s all just so foreign to me.”