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Welcome to Orange County, China

March 09, 2002|MIKE ANTON and HENRY CHU | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

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."

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