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Expats Find Homelike China

October 15, 2000

BEIJING (AP) _ It looks like America, feels like America, even smells like America. But this neighborhood, with its two-story brick houses, manicured lawns and fresh-faced kids on inline skates, isn’t America.

It’s China.

Welcome to Dragon Villas, one of many exclusive developments that cater to China’s growing expatriate community by recreating Western-style housing with theme park-like accuracy. The effect allows them to live abroad yet feel like they never left home.

``There’s no such thing as fresh air in Beijing,″ said Debbie Gwinn, who moved with her businessman husband from South Carolina to Dragon Villas on the Chinese capital’s outskirts. ``If you want to see blue sky, this is the only place you can see it.″

The developments _ rising from what was recently farmland _ offer amenities unheard of in the homes of most Beijing residents: bright, fully equipped kitchens, two-car garages and satellite TV capturing CNN, Japanese networks and other stations in nearly a dozen languages.

They are lush and well-landscaped with flower beds and fruit trees. The smell of freshly mowed grass masks Beijing’s musty odor of car exhaust and other pollutants.

But the Parisian-style apartment houses, Italianate villas and other oases of Western culture aren’t purely for the benefit of foreigners. The compounds _ surrounded by walls and guarded gates _ also allow China’s authoritarian government to keep a close eye on the capital’s foreigners.

Beijing’s ``expats″ are required to live in designated areas in housing approved for foreigners. Special permission from police is needed to live in ordinary Chinese housing. Foreign journalists and diplomats face even tighter restrictions.

The controls seem natural for a government used to controlling its citizens’ lives. They also have deep roots in Chinese history.

Until China’s last imperial dynasty was toppled in 1911, Beijing was divided into walled rings, with the emperor in the center, his court in the second ring, and officials and ordinary people in the third.

Traditional China was ``very hierarchical″ _ divided by social rank, sex and generation _ ``and authorities didn’t want the local people to have contact with the foreigners too much,″ said Li Lin, a Hong Kong expert of Chinese architecture and urbanization.

Today’s villa neighborhoods succeed in keeping foreigners isolated and in banishing the normal chaos of Chinese urban life.

In Beijing’s older neighborhoods, residents live a communal life surrounded by a cacophony of activity. Peddlers hawk their wares. Women do laundry in a courtyard shared by several families. Old men rattle down alleys on carts loaded with everything from watermelons to charcoal.

All over the city, people cram by the dozens into low-lying brick houses without air conditioning or bathrooms. Others live in drab concrete apartment towers that rise high into the smoggy sky.

Some foreigners seek the hurly-burly of Chinese life. And some old city neighborhoods are much sought after addresses.

``I fell in love when I first saw the neighborhood,″ said Joy Lo, a New Jersey native who works for a public relations firm and lives in Ju’er Lane, a cluster of renovated houses amid the genteelly decaying courtyard homes that once belonged to nobility. ``It feels like I’m in a Chinese neighborhood.″

``Chinese housing is unique,″ said Jason Xie, a marketing executive with DTZ, an international property consultant. But for most foreigners, ``it’s too unique,″ he added.

By contrast, Dragon Villas offers North American suburbia: ``A perfect community in an imperfect world,″ its advertisements go.

At the Hengchuan Apartments, ``Life is so different, you almost need a visa,″ according to its ads.

Compounds include restaurants, swimming pools, karaoke rooms and grocery stores stocked with foreign goods. Shuttle buses take people to schools or shopping in the city _ as much as an hour away.

Well-heeled expats pay from a few hundred thousand to over a million dollars _ well-beyond the means of the average Chinese _ to buy a house in some of the more popular compounds. The government retains ownership of the land, leasing it for 10 to 20 years.

Rents are pricey, too. In the popular Beijing Riviera development, a house of about 3,600 square feet goes for $7,400 and up a month.

The compounds aren’t exclusive. Newly monied Chinese _ many of whom have lived or traveled abroad _ are also buying villas.

A few of the developments try to create a more Chinese feel. Some have homes inspired by the traditional courtyard house. Others offer classes in traditional Chinese arts and exercise, or celebrate traditional Chinese festivals in the development’s clubhouse.

Most residents ``like to catch some Chinese style while they’re here,″ said Jennifer Bi, a manager at Eurovillage, home to executives from companies like Nokia, Ericsson and DaimlerChrysler.

But like Lillian Kuehen, a native of Belgium chatting with a group of friends over tea in the Dragon Villas clubhouse, they want the comforts of home as well.

``After an afternoon in the city, I’m always glad to be back here in the peace and quiet,″ she said.

___

On the Net:

Beijing Riviera: http://www.bjriviera.com

Sites on traditional Chinese housing:

http://www.chinavista.com/experience/siheyuan/siheyuan.html

http://www.chinavista.com/experience/hutong/hutong.html

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