It was a carefully plotted mission. For three years, Beijing property developer He Qun travelled across Canada with his camera, taking 6,000 photos of wood-frame houses from Vancouver to Quebec City. Then he went back to China and conjured up a Canadian suburb.
Mr. He's company, Beijing Capital, had acquired a valuable property on the northern outskirts of Beijing. The 74-hectare site, a former chicken farm, boasted a unique asset: more than 10,000 mature poplars, willows, pines and other trees scattered across the site.
Most traditional Chinese developers would have bulldozed the trees and thrown up cheap concrete high-rises. Instead, Mr. He and his colleagues opted to preserve every tree on the site. They pulled out the photos of the Canadian houses, hired Vancouver-based architectural firm Ekistics Inc. to design a batch of similar homes in Tudor and Prairie ranch-house styles, and began planning a Canadian-style suburb on the edge of Beijing.
Today, the chicken barns are demolished and more than a thousand Chinese construction workers are swarming over the site. The suburb, to be called Vancouver Forest, is one of the biggest wood-frame housing projects in Chinese history, requiring millions of dollars' worth of Canadian lumber products. A Canadian company, New Asia Capital Consultants Inc. of Vancouver, is one of the two main contractors overseeing the project.
The 876 planned detached houses are being carefully built in the midst of the trees. Chimneys are shifted and notches cut in the roofs to allow every tree to be preserved in its original location. The developer has threatened to impose a financial penalty on the contractors if even a single tree is lost.
"We are selling the Canadian lifestyle -- the front yard, the back yard, the white picket fence," Mr. He said. "We want to introduce the Canadian spirit to the Chinese people. The healthy and green ideas of the Canadian people are very good. We'll do our best to learn from Canadians to love nature and love forests and love life. We want to preserve those trees, to learn from Canada."
The green rhetoric is motivated by more than just environmentalism. Beijing Capital is expecting substantial profits. After spending about $230-million (U.S.) on the project, it hopes to sell the houses for an average of about $360,000 each. Further revenue will flow from shops, gyms, restaurants and other businesses on the site.
With its booming economy, the new availability of mortgages and the soaring level of private home ownership, China is turning to Western-themed homes to satisfy its wealthier buyers.
The latest fashion is for suburban communities with foreign names, marketed as a slice of the Western lifestyle. Beijing Capital has already built Sydney Coast, an Australian-themed community. Other housing developments around Beijing are called Orange County, Palm Springs, Napa Valley, Gold Coast and Villa Yosemite.
"It's like the postwar housing boom in North America," said Dickson Hall, a Canadian housing consultant and developer. "These are like 1950s-style suburbs. There's an emerging middle class in many Chinese cities and their aspirations are similar -- for healthier houses and a better lifestyle."
The frenzy for foreign housing has reached such peaks that even high-rise developments seek a Western connection. One Chinese-Canadian investor, LVC Group, is heavily touting a Vancouver link to its 18-tower Riverside condominium project, currently under construction in Beijing. "No need to go overseas, you can enjoy the romance and leisure of Vancouver at every moment," says the brochure, which contends that the seven-storey and nine-storey towers will be in the style of "Vancouver, the most beautiful city in North America."
Outside the Riverside site, a sign in English says: "Amorous feelings of Canada Coast." Its billboards and brochures feature a portrait of Don Bell, mayor of North Vancouver, who is mistakenly identified as "the mayor of Vancouver." He is described as the "general consultant" to the project.
In an interview yesterday, Mr. Bell said he had no idea his picture was being used to promote the project and denied acting as a consultant.
He said he has merely provided free advice about the building style of Canadian homes to the developer, Li Zhe, whom he described as a friend.
The Canadian and B.C. governments are spending millions of dollars to persuade Chinese developers to switch from traditional "brick box" construction to the North American style of wood-frame homes, which are promoted as being healthier, energy efficient and quicker to build.
Mr. Hall, whose company has built 45 wood-frame houses in Nanjing and Suzhou, predicts that Chinese developers could be constructing 15,000 wood-frame houses annually within five years. Just this month, the Chinese government approved a new building code for wood-frame houses, an important boost for the industry. Chinese demand for imports of industrial round wood is expected to reach 100 million cubic metres by 2010, compared with 16 million cubic metres last year.
Canadian environmentalists, however, are unimpressed by the campaign to promote wood-frame housing in China. The B.C.-based Forest Action Network is placing a half-page advertisement in the biggest English-language newspaper in China, to warn that the B.C. government should not promote wood products in China until it has halted "unsustainable clear-cut logging" at home.