China's new millionaires are travelling and copying the housing that they see overseas.

Welcome to Orange County, Beijing

ORANGE COUNTY (China) - American-style mansions are popping up all over the Beijing countryside, reflecting the latest fashion in real-estate marketing and sales.

Names borrowed from United States places - like Central Park, Palm Springs and Manhattan Gardens - have supplanted offerings such as Jade Dragon Apartments and East Lake Villa, indicating the increasingly Western aspirations of Chinese consumers.

For example, Orange County, or Ju Jun in Chinese, is an hour's drive north of Beijing.

'I liked it immediately - it is just like a house in California,' said Ms Nasha Wei, a former army doctor turned businesswoman, as she sat on a white suede banquette in her four-bedroom house in Orange County. She moved into the unit earlier this year.

Horizon Market Research advises developers on how to set their buildings apart, noted: 'Especially in Beijing, it's a kind of fashion - and if you don't choose a Western concept right now, you're really out of it.'

Surveys by his firm showed that 70 per cent of developers were emphasising the Western style as a marketing tool.

In many cases, the name is just a US location tacked on to typical upmarket Chinese apartments. But at Orange County, developers have promised clients the real deal - so long as they can afford the minimum price tag of US$500,000 (S$872,000).

Houses are replicas of Southern California homes, designed by Southern California architects, with model homes decorated by Los Angeles interior designers.

Of course, not every aspect of upper-middle-class Los Angeles translates exactly to the replicas, and adjustments have to be made.

Houses in Orange County are all built with sprawling, American-style kitchens, with ovens and countertop stoves.

But residents have discovered these facilities are poorly suited to typical Chinese cooking, which is centred on woks and sends grease and smoke spewing everywhere.

Ms. Liang Haijing, a lawyer in her 30s, said: 'I love the kitchen - it is very pretty - but the smoke is dispersed all over the house by the central air.' So, like many Orange County residents, she has built a shack just outside the kitchen's sliding glass doors to do all the cooking.

In 1999, Mr. Weighdoon Yang, vice-president of SinoCEA, the real-estate development company which owns Orange County, travelled to California to research homes.

He returned with a concept and a deal with a Newport Beach architect.

'Chinese people like the image of the American lifestyle, and we are the only company building homes like this here,' he said.

Mr. Yang's idea had tapped into a well of desire. Though an hour out of Beijing, all the homes in Orange County were sold within a month.

Like in the case of its namesake, Orange County, China, is mostly a haven for conservative lawyers, businessmen and celebrities looking for somewhere peaceful to raise children.

All the residents are Chinese, a mix of those who have spent time in the West and those who simply like the atmosphere. Ms Wei goes to the US several times a year, selling her company's wooden furniture to the stores there.

Ms. Liang, in contrast, has never been abroad.

She said she liked the huge master bathroom and 'scientific' layout, which divided the first floor into the living, dining and family areas. Typical upmarket Chinese homes have only one large space.

'This is much more cosy,' she said, snuggling in a fleece vest on a couch by the fireplace. 'Chinese sitting rooms are like hotels.'

So far, Orange County is a suburb without suburbia, surrounded by villages and fields.

But that is sure to change: It is less than 16 km from the site of the 2008 Olympic Games, and the area is slated for rapid development.

Already, two new six-lane highways that run nearby are giving it more of that Los Angeles feel, with just one difference: There is no traffic - yet.      --New York Times   4 Feb 2003


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