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Asia's Altered State

Author: Bill Barnett. Category: News Column - Property Report SEA. Posted: 1st Sep 2014

Italy conjures up iconic, romantic visions, in which you can almost reach out and touch the hat of the gondolier as you slowly cruise along the canals of Venice. Yes, you are magically being rocked to sleep as he sings those soft notes and the water gently laps against the sides of the gondola.

Is it too good to be true? Or course it is.

As reality sets in, you find yourself sailing down some stagnant backwater on a decrepit wooden boat that is about to sink, whilst the fear of catching either an imminent case of dengue or a longer bout of malaria overcomes you. Welcome to Asia's mockumentary of copycat real estate, replete with a soundtrack of Pavarotti on an iPhone-powered boom box.

In this day and age when the East is being cast onto the stage as a headliner for the West, an increasing number of regional developers are tapping into the idea of transporting faraway places and history directly to your doorstep. Actually forget the doorstep, as you now live in the hills of Tuscany in a pseudo-European chalet. Mind you, I'd recommend importing the wine.

Exotic notions and taste gone wild are nothing new in Asian real estate's palatial palaces of the up-and-coming. Be it that Greco Roman swimming pool or French period stairway, which has your Golden Retriever struggling for a grip, all the world is indeed a stage.

Many of my first memories of coming to Asia in the early 1980s include the powerful aura that the term ''import" had over the local populace. This was indeed persuasive medicine for the masses.

The mystic West with its perceived cultural brand leadership meant that money was no object when it came to the acquisition of these consumer goods.

Developers in China's property market, which has amped up more than Lance Armstrong, have rebuilt entire European towns aimed at capturing the imagination of property buyers who lust after a life spent in the Swiss Alps, despite being a stone's throw from an industrial plant in Chengdu.

It wasn't long ago that copycat Asia was globally renowned for its knock offs and sadly today, even though the East has upped its game and become a force to be reckoned with, old habits die hard. Locals still somehow hold their value system on Western ideals and in many cases that includes their choices of habitat.

Sure, it's easy as a Westerner to view this as tacky and lowbrow, but my only cultural identity as an American is a past clouded by shag carpets, tract houses and aluminum house siding. So who am I to judge?

If the up-and-coming class want to believe they actually live in Tuscany and spend lazy afternoons mingling though Roman gardens, is it up to me to point out the madness of it all?

Well, actually it is. Why you may ask have I been appointed to the Architecture Police Department?

Because I also come from a country where Venetian gondoliers ply canals in the desert wasteland of places like Las Vegas. But at least at the end of a holiday you can escape these tourist traps and run for the safety of home.

Purchasing a themed house is akin to living in an altered state. At some point in the future, we may even start hearing well-heeled Thais in the hills of Khao Yai communicating in thick Tuscan accents.

My point is that it's far better to celebrate who you are and where you are; stay local and don't fall for the tempting belief that life on the other side is any better. Venice is after all sinking fast and is far too expensive for even the locals to live in.

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C9 Hotelworks Founder and Managing Director Bill Barnett is a noted columnist, author and leading authority on travel trend, hotels and property.

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