Main­land’s mak­ers of minia­ture apart­ments get cut down to size


They tower over their shrunken cre­ations like gods. But in the face of an ex­tended down­turn af­ter a decade-long prop­erty boom, China’s minia­ture apart­ment builders are fi­nally down­siz­ing their am­bi­tions.

China has ex­pe­ri­enced the most rapid ur­ban­iza­tion in hu­man his­tory — it is said to have used more ce­ment in 2011-2013 than the U.S. did in the en­tire 20th cen­tury, and built twice as many homes in the decade to 2010 as ex­ist in Bri­tain in to­tal.

Over the same pe­riod home prices in ma­jor cities tripled, and many res­i­den­tial buy­ers snapped up apart­ments be­fore a stone was laid.

Prop­erty de­vel­op­ers en­listed an army of ar­ti­sans to make tiny, of­ten ex­tremely de­tailed mod­els of houses for their glitzy show­rooms, spark­ing a par­al­lel frenzy of smallscale con­struc­tion.

“De­vel­op­ers used home buy­ers to fund their projects, and us­ing mod­els of houses to be built was one way for them to re­solve their fund­ing prob­lem,” said Zhu Guozhong, an econ­o­mist at Pek­ing Uni­ver­sity.

“You could sell a house just based on the model.”

Now de­mand for both real ac­com­mo­da­tion and its scaled-down equiv­a­lent has shriv­eled.

“Com­pared to five years ago, we are mak­ing a lot fewer mod­els,” said crafts­man Wang Gang, as his col­leagues at Canyon Mod­els in­serted minia­ture fur­ni­ture into a crop of luxury plas­tic vil­las, one glu­ing a Lil­liputian kitchen sink into place.

Over­con­struc­tion and gov­ern­ment con­trols on house pur­chases aimed at pre­vent­ing a bub­ble have caused real es­tate sales to stall.

Prop­erty prices in ma­jor cities have fallen for 10 of the last 12 months, leav­ing de­vel­op­ers with a han­gover of empty prop­er­ties and half-built com­plexes, and putting new projects on hold.

“Busi­ness has been tough for the last cou­ple of years,” said mod­el­maker Zhong Zhaop­ing, who started out as a trainee 15 years ago and now has his own firm in the south­ern city of Guangzhou.

“It’s be­cause of the fall in hous­ing prices, which makes peo­ple scared to buy.”

He has had to lay off around half the staff at his di­lap­i­dated fac­tory.

One of a hand­ful of re­main­ing work­ers gripped a block of flats in each hand, and plonked them be­side a for­est of five-cen­time­ter bon­sai-like trees — made from metal wire twisted into shape and dipped in green paint.

Model Work­ers

Other firms are di­ver­si­fy­ing or look­ing abroad.

At Shen­zhen- based Canyon mod­els, su­per­vi­sor Wen Jun stood in front of a sprawl­ing com­mer­cial plaza — com­plete with inch-high shop­pers and il­lu­mi­nated ad­ver­tise­ments — small enough to fit on a ta­ble.

“When the mar­ket was just start­ing, we pro­duced a lot of houses,” he said. “Now we’re do­ing more of th­ese shop­ping de­vel­op­ments. We use lights to make it ex­actly like the real thing. Ev­ery de­tail is per­fect.

“We do a lot of mod­els for the UAE, for Dubai, be­cause the de­mand is big­ger there,” he added. “Next we will go to Brazil, and Southeast Asian coun­tries.”

The work­shop still clat­ters with ac­tiv­ity, and a row of male work­ers laid out sky­scrapers on a ta­ble, goug­ing out their win­dows with knives.

Worker Wang, who is in his mid-40s, said or­ders for gov­ern­ment build­ings were a bright spot — de­spite of­fi­cial or­ders for a halt to such projects — point­ing out a plan for a sprawl­ing new com­plex or­dered by a po­lice force in In­ner Mon­go­lia.

“At first it seemed like a strange thing to do, but you get used to it,” he said.

His co­worker Wang Pan­pan es­ti­mates he has knocked out 10,000 build­ings in his ca­reer, and is proud­est of a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of a 606-me­ter sky­scraper slated for the cen­tral city of Wuhan, ren­dered at a 100:1 scale.

But any delu­sions of grandeur are ruled out by his hum­ble salary of about 2,500 yuan ( US$400) a month.


(Top) This photo taken on April 23 shows a man un­veil­ing a sprawl­ing a minia­ture com­mer­cial plaza at the Canyon Mod­els fac­tory in Shen­zhen. (Above) This April 23 photo shows an em­ployee work­ing on a minia­ture build­ing at the Canyon Mod­els fac­tory in Shen­zhen.

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