Welcome to Orange County, China
A brochure touts the housing development as “Pure American.”
The interior of one model home looks like it was ripped from a Pottery Barn catalog. On the shelves are volumes of Encyclopaedia Britannica and novels by Tom Clancy, James Michener and Judy Blume. A framed photo shows a couple laughing on their wedding day. Another is of Andy Griffith with Opie by his side. In the recreation room, the board game Sorry lies open on a table.
Welcome to Orange County.
No, not that Orange County.
This is Orange County, China.
An hour’s drive from the heart of Beijing, a Chinese developer, working with a Newport Beach architect and Orange County designers, is capitalizing on what may become the world’s largest housing market in an era of rapid economic reform in China.
“We wanted to create a whole environment that was in the American style,” said Yao Wang, the developer’s representative in Los Angeles. “Sunshine. Palm trees. Make people feel good.”
What’s being built offers more than a window onto China’s booming housing construction market. It’s a recognition of cultural changes, fueled by money, that are sweeping China and creating a new upwardly mobile class with an appetite for all things Western.
The Chinese Dream, in this case, looks a lot like the American Dream, down to its last master-planned, manicured, marbled and guard-gated detail.
In short, the Orange County of stereotype and fable.
At a cost of nearly $60 million, China’s Orange County is taking root a few miles from the site of the 2008 Summer Olympics. When completed, the collection of $250,000 townhomes and million-dollar-plus luxury estates will be accompanied by shops, a community center and a man-made lake.
It’s a place that captured the imagination of Xiao Qingchun.
Last year, after returning from New York, the 26-year-old documentary filmmaker checked out China’s Orange County. He was enamored of the spacious layout of the homes, the luxury touches.
The next day he bought the only unsold property at the time--a $300,000 model home, fully decorated and furnished.
“It’s very American,” Xiao said. “It’s designed by an American firm and its materials were imported from America and its furniture was imported from America. . . . I could never have decorated it so well myself.”
Xiao is willing to voice what usually is politely unsaid in such gated enclaves in America: That the advantage of his new neighborhood lies in its being set apart from the lower orders. In a society once billed as a workers’ paradise, fulfillment now comes from being separated from the masses.
Catering to that desire is Zhang Bo, the 39-year-old Beijing real estate mogul behind the development, which rises incongruously amid farm fields north of the nation’s capital.
American Homes Show Owner Has Arrived
Four years ago, Zhang visited his friend Yao Wang, who runs an export business from the cramped back room of his wife’s Wilshire Boulevard art gallery. The two were driving around Orange County, Calif., when Zhang had an epiphany: These are the kind of homes that professional Chinese would want. Not another sterile high-rise apartment, but a real American home that, in its design and materials, exclaimed that its owner had arrived.
“This was risky,” Wang said. “When we started this project, we didn’t hire a consulting firm to do market research, like you do here. . . . We didn’t know who would buy this home. We just wanted to do it as quick as possible.”
Zhang instructed Wang to find him an American architect. Wang wrote letters to dozens of firms. Only a few bothered to respond.
“I had money I wanted to give to them. But they didn’t call back. They didn’t want the money,” Wang said. “That’s weird.”
One who did call back was the award-winning Newport Beach architectural firm Bassenian Lagoni. Aram Bassenian is among a group of Orange County architects regarded as pioneers in refining, beginning in the 1960s, what many think of today as the typical upscale suburban home.
“Orange County has been the Detroit of the housing industry. It’s where a lot of new ideas have sprung from,” Bassenian said of such features as open floor plans, sprawling kitchens and soaring ceilings. “We export design.”
Bassenian also had experience overseas, working on projects in Indonesia, Thailand and Japan.
China, however, offered a wider cultural divide.
“We live better than they do. . . . They want that. . . . The dream as represented in a California house is infectious,” Bassenian said. “It’s a huge leap forward.”
The developers of China’s Orange County boast that their project is the first Chinese community entirely master-planned and designed by Americans, using mostly American products. It’s also, perhaps, the first development to so blatantly market itself as American--and therefore superior to what’s dreamed up locally.
All 143 units of the first phase were snatched up within a month of going on sale, based on floor plans alone. The Beijing media dubbed it the “Orange storm.”
Brochures for the development are full of Anglo faces celebrating the “suburb obsession.” Some of the homes pictured are stock photos of Aliso Viejo and Coto de Caza.
“Flown over fresh to Beijing,” one brochure promises.
Zhang toured housing developments from New York to Miami to Las Vegas. There, he discovered basement recreation rooms, central heating systems, wine cellars, built-in backyard barbecues and the concept of model homes--all largely foreign ideas in China.
“It’s everything we take for granted,” architect Jeffrey LaFetra said. “I had no idea what to expect going in.”
Plans had to incorporate feng shui, the ancient art of placing things to ensure a harmonious energy flow. Bedrooms needed to face south to catch the sun. Stairways couldn’t be visible from the front entrance, and those doors couldn’t directly face the street.
“The orientation of the house is most important to me,” said home buyer Xiao Qingchun. “I had a friend check the feng shui for me, and he said it had good feng shui.”
‘Wall Kitchen’ Among Chinese Features
Perhaps most Chinese of all, each home has a “wall kitchen” alongside an expansive American-style cooking area decked out with custom tiles, granite counters and polished brass fixtures. It’s a small cubicle with a window, a couple of stove-top burners and a fan powerful enough to suck up the smell of Chinese cooking.
“Chinese people are used to stir-frying, and the smell of oil and smoke is heavy,” said Weighdoon Yang, the development company’s vice president. “It can get into the furniture.”
In recent years, suburban developments have popped up across China. Some market themselves as having “German” or “Australian” flavor. A few advertise themselves as authentically American.
But where most of the older gated compounds catered to expatriates, the newer crop is aimed squarely at China’s nouveau riche, still a minority in this mostly rural country where the per capita income is $1,000 a year.
“I had two requirements,” Yang said of the project. “From the perspective of taste, it was designed to appeal to women. Functionally, it’s designed for lazy people,” meaning the homes are equipped with everything from high-tech climate controls to broadband Internet connections.
Yang said all of Orange County’s buyers are native Chinese. More than 20% have, like Xiao, lived abroad. More than 90% are buying second homes. Their ranks include entrepreneurs and business executives, artists and a show-biz celebrity or two.
After the Communist takeover of China in 1949, the party became everyone’s landlord. In 1998, China unveiled its “housing reform,” encouraged individual home ownership and expanded the availability of mortgages, although financing remains a novelty.
This and other economic freedoms have ushered in a new way of life for many urban Chinese. On Friday, the state-run China Information News reported that $65.2 billion was invested last year in housing construction, up 18.6% from 2000. Some 250,000 home-remodeling and design companies employ 8.5 million people, the government-run Economic Daily reported last December.
Acknowledging the business potential, the U.S. National Assn. of Home Builders held its second international conference in China last year.
“There are 200 million potential customers for single-family housing in China,” said Katalin Vaughan, executive director of international affairs for the group. “It’s huge. The question is whether it’s a market for Americans, or the rest of the world.
“The competition is extremely high,” she said, noting that German, Canadian and Scandinavian home builders all have eyes on China. “The typical American builder is very hesitant to go overseas. The American building market has been so good to them. And, of course, there are risks involved with China. It’s a different culture.”
Just ask Debra Newell.
Interior Designer Cites ‘Very Bad Experience’
Newell, president of Ambrosia Interior Design in Tustin, was hired to decorate and furnish Orange County’s model homes. After four months in which her team of 10 designers logged 2,000 hours--twice what she anticipated--Newell says she would never do it again.
“It was a very bad experience for us,” she said. “They’d yell at us, scream at us, demand things and say we couldn’t leave the country . . . until you finish the job.
“They expected us to work 14-, 16-hour days,” she added. “They had some of my designers in tears.”
Newell, who charged per square foot, not by the hour, says her firm was roped into doing far more than interior design--scouring the Chinese countryside for granite and designing the wood baseboards, for instance.
“We had to fly there and show them how to lay the carpet,” said Newell, who claims she still is owed $15,000 from the developer. “Also, as a woman, I was treated differently than I am here.
“I think they see us as being spoiled.”
Yang said he was satisfied with Ambrosia’s work and denied that anyone with his company ever yelled at Newell’s employees or threatened to keep them from leaving China.
“We asked Ambrosia to revise some of their plans during their presentations, and we thought they would revise them before they came here,” he said. “It turned out they did not change the original designs, so we had to spend some time discussing that in Beijing. They also asked us to pay for those extra hours, which we refused.”
Architects ‘Treated Like Celebrities’
In contrast, the architects from Bassenian couldn’t have been happier with their experience. They’ve since been contacted by other Chinese developers looking to forge a similar partnership.
“We were treated like celebrities,” LaFetra said.
At Orange County’s grand opening, visitors wore plastic booties over their shoes when they toured the model homes. Media covered the event. The U.S. and Canadian embassies were represented. Everyone dined on cheeseburgers from McDonald’s.
The project’s second phase is to be completed by August 2003. It’s a collection of mansions in Spanish, Italian and French styles. The Wenyu River runs nearby.
It’s the real luxury stuff. To stir the imagination, the developer has gone back to America for a name.
Chu reported from Orange County, China; Anton from Orange County, Calif.