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China's miniature homemakers cut down to size
[SHENZHEN] 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 urbanisation in human history - it is said to have used more cement in 2011-2013 than the US 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 small-scale 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 shrivelled.
"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-centimetre bonsai-like trees - made from metal wire twisted into shape and dipped in green paint.
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 606m 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 (S$540) a month.
"We try and take reality and put it into the models," he said. "It's not an easy job."