Why China's super wealthy shun Western-looking homes
When Sotheby's listed a 32-bedroom house in Suzhou last month, it was the property's price tag that made headlines.
Valued at 1 billion yuan (over $150 million), the 72,000-square-foot estate -- nicknamed 'utopia' in Mandarin -- was heralded as China's most expensive home.
The story led to familiar commentary about the country's booming demand for luxury living. But it also represented a subtler trend among the super-rich.
Despite having the trappings of a modern Western mansion, including a pool and wine cellar, the property was unapologetically Chinese in style.
The house's rock gardens and curved roofs epitomize a historical aesthetic now being replicated -- to varying degrees of authenticity -- across China's luxury market.
While high-end buyers overall still prefer Western-style villas and apartments, demand is changing, says Sunny Liu, general manager of property research firm China Index Academy.
"We can see this trend of traditional styles becoming more and more popular in the market, especially in the very top-end of the luxury sector," he says. "In Beijing, most of the high-value villa products are traditional now."
'New is better' mentality
Despite this growing fondness for antique design, the history of a home is of less concern to the luxury market.
This is particularly evident in in China's oldest cities, where heritage preservation has taken a backseat to urban regeneration. In Beijing's ancient 'hutong' alleyways, for instance, developers often demolish centuries-old buildings, only to construct tacky replicas of traditional courtyards in their place.
This tendency may be, in part, a legacy of the Cultural Revolution, which saw countless historic buildings and monuments destroyed as part of Chairman Mao Zedong's war on the 'Four Olds' (old customs, culture, habits and ideas). To this day, local governments across China continue to sanction and carry out the demolition of heritage areas in the name of modernization.
But as well as developers' reluctance to spend time and money on restoration, Chinese consumers also associate luxury and livability with 'newness,' says Samuel Liang, associate professor of urbanism at Utah Valley University and author of 'Remaking China's Great Cities'.
"In China, new is definitely better," he says.
"Even if it's in a traditional style, you have to buy brand new. I think the Chinese learned this from America -- especially the West Coast -- and they now basically have the same mentality when it comes to real estate."
The popularity of traditional-looking homes among the country's most well-to-do stems in part from its expensive construction costs.
Liu notes that the hand-crafted materials and ornate decorations used in Chinese architecture are often worth more than their Western designs, pricing certain classes of buyer out.
But this cannot fully account for the recent change in taste.
China Index Academy is yet to collect data on architectural styles, but industry insiders like Guo Yi, a marketing executive at the Beijing-based real estate consultancy Yahao, say the shift has taken place within recent years.
"It's been in the last two or three years that traditional design elements have been increasingly employed in high-end properties," she explains. "Fifteen years ago, typical luxury properties in Beijing all took their names from Western buildings. Now, Chinese words with traditional cultural meanings are used more often."
Traditional architecture's rising stock may instead reflect new expressions of status. Owning Chinese-style properties allows high-end buyers to distinguish themselves from the country's middle class, who often aspire to western ideals of luxury. If the rich reside in developments with names like "Central Park" and "Orange County" (both of which can be found in Beijing), then the super-rich increasingly eschew mock-Western design.
"A Chinese buyer with this much money has likely traveled extensively and probably already owns property abroad -- maybe even a French château," says Liz Flora, editor-in-chief of Jing Daily, a website covering luxury consumer trends in China.
"It will take something unique to get them to spend huge amounts on property within mainland China. There is a certain segment which sees the 'copycat' European architectural style as a gimmick aimed at nouveau riche buyers."
These new demands are being felt in the real estate market, says Jon O'Brien, founder of luxury property development company Domvs London.
Less than 10 years ago, he was being approached to build European-style villages. Now his firm is considering a trophy "mega-development" near Hangzhou. As well as incorporating the principles of feng shui, the plan includes traditional pavilions on a man-made lake, and a "Chinese-inspired Great Wall" around the perimeter of the complex.
"Buyers are becoming more design savvy," O'Brien says. "As the Chinese market becomes more sophisticated, and [people] travel globally, they quickly learn that pastiche, ill-conceived, mock-Western 'Disneyland' architecture has no longevity in terms of design or investment. That's why there is a recent trend toward Chinese traditional exterior architecture, albeit with contemporary interiors and amenities."
Enduring appeal of a home abroad
But while China's high-end buyers have a new taste for their culture's old styles, design cannot trump the golden rule of property: 82% would pay more for location.
For the country's super-rich, the most desired locations still lie overseas, which can often offer a better quality of life and access to top schools for their offspring.
The report found that 53% of respondents planned to buy their next property in Europe or North America so while mock-western may be going out of fashion, the trend is still being outpaced by demand for the real thing.