China millionaire's pursuit of castles
AS THE greatest urbanisation drive in history swells China's cities with ranks of identikit apartment blocks, one culinary businessman is indulging his architectural appetite with a visual feast of extravagant, outlandish castles.
"I don't have any hobbies, except for planting trees and building castles," said Mr Liu Chonghua, standing on a crenellated turret atop the largest of the six he has constructed.
Mr Liu, who made millions from feeding China's growing appetite for cakes and bread, now plans to make his home in the grey stone structure, which resembles Britain's Windsor Castle. His others include a red-brick fairy-tale edifice stacked with soaring spires, and a white confection with candy-coloured towers reminiscent of Neuschwanstein, the hilltop fantasy built by the 19th-century Bavarian king Ludwig II.
"When I was a child, I heard stories about princes and castles," said Mr Liu, 59, adding that he grew up "with an empty stomach every day" in China's countryside.
After making his fortune, he said: "I wanted to turn the castles of my dreams into something real."
He is one of several Chinese millionaires channelling their wealth into eccentric projects, but his designs have led to death threats and put him on a collision course with local officials in the south-western megacity of Chongqing.
Mr Liu said he spent more than 100 million yuan ($20 million) - some borrowed from friends - on the buildings, which are open to the public. A woman surnamed Gao, who posed for pictures in a wedding dress outside one castle, said: "I think the castles are very romantic."
Some local officials feel differently and, two years ago, they sent diggers to knock over a 16m-high castle gate.
Mr Liu said: "That was my lowest moment. The government has never appreciated me, it said I've offended local officials. I got anonymous calls from someone threatening to run me over with a car."
Other newly minted Chinese magnates have also engaged in bizarre construction projects - one businessman has built imitations of the Great Pyramid of Giza and the Palace of Versailles on his corporate campus - but Mr Liu has ambitions for more.
"I have achieved half of my dream," he said. "The next part is building better and more awesome castles, the kind that will astound people."
Staring wistfully into the distance, he pointed towards a forested mound.
"I will build another, bigger castle on top of that hill."