It started with Toblerone, the legendary triangle-shaped chocolate bar with chewy nougaty bits. Toblerone was made in Switzerland and, when I was much much younger, it was not easily available in places far from Switzerland. They were treats in our house, only appearing when someone bought one as a gift from a duty free shop on their way home from a holiday ‘abroad’. There was something exotic and luxurious about chocolate that could only be bought abroad. It’s different now of course, Toblerone is still made in Switzerland but it is available in 122 countries (and 25% of sales are still made in duty free shops).
When I arrived in New Zealand in the late 1980s. I remember craving Rose’s lime marmalade and Galaxy chocolate because they were not available in New Zealand. Visitors from the UK arrived with precious jars and bars in their suitcases. The thrill was the same as getting a duty free Toblerone.
Things have changed and the truth is, these days, we don’t need to leave our home town, or even our home, to access pretty much anything we want. That’s the gift of globalisation, international branding, and online shopping. And now, for Chinese travellers at least, there is another reason not to leave home. Why endure long distance travel to see the Eiffel Tower in Paris or Tower Bridge in London when there is a replica in your own country?
An article published in the New York Times reports that there is a Tower Bridge clone in the western city of Suzhou, China and, unbelievably, it is only one of 56 copycat bridges in that city. There is also a Sydney Harbour Bridge and an Alexandre III Bridge from Paris. Astonishingly, across China there are also at least 10 White Houses and 4 Arcs de Triomphe. There are towns built to look like a typical English village, a Parisian arrondissement or a Dutch town with windmills and canals. In 2016, a clone of the Sphinx of Giza was demolished after the Egyptian government protested that the copy harmed the cultural heritage of Egypt.
It is easy to dismiss this copycat architecture as the ultimate madness of a country unperturbed by plagiarism and exceptional at creating knock offs but what is most disturbing is why local architects and builders see more value in importing foreign design and architecture rather than celebrating the traditions of their own rich culture. It’s also the antithesis to the spirit of exploration and adventure that we human beings thrive on.
If clones of iconic buildings spring up around the world, will it go the way of the Toblerone? Still delicious but now that it is available in almost every country in the world, not nearly as special as those rare and precious gifts bought from a duty free shop in a far away airport.