- Associated Press - Saturday, January 25, 2020

JACKSON, Wyo. (AP) - Halfway around the world from this Western ski town there’s a place called Jackson Hole, China.

And no, the name isn’t a coincidence. Located a few hours north of Beijing, Jackson Hole, China, is a small town that bears an uncanny resemblance to Jackson, Wyoming, and the surrounding valley. Although it’s not an exact replica, the architecture and layout of the town are remarkably similar – there’s even a place called “Cowboy Bar,” a clear nod to the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar.

How did China’s Jackson Hole come to be? Why was it built to imitate Jackson Hole, USA? How do the citizens of the replica town live day to day?

Those questions were what inspired filmmaker Adam James Smith to make his feature-length documentary “Americaville,” along with co-producers Qi Zhang, Wang Qihan, Wei Guang, Song Ke, and Tang Yi.

Although originally from the United Kingdom, Smith is no stranger to life in either the United States or China. His childhood was spent in both countries due to his father’s career, and he has lived in China on and off for the past 10 years.

Smith’s first feature-length documentary “The Land of Many Palaces,” released in 2015, investigated the recent large-scale migration of Chinese farmers who leave the rural countryside and resettle in more urban areas, often at the prompting of the Chinese government.

Just as production for “The Land of Many Palaces” was wrapping up, Smith heard of a gated, secretive “cowboy town” that had popped up outside Beijing. Jackson Hole, China, was a place where people were leaving the city to go and live out their own versions of American culture and the American dream.

“I couldn’t get this place out of my head, the way they described it,” Smith said. “While my first film was about the mass movement of rural communities to cities, this story is the opposite - wealthy urban people leaving for imagined small-town American life because of issues like pollution and crime in the cities.”

Despite the town’s emphasis on privacy, Smith managed to live there for several months in the summer of 2015. As he collected interviews and filmed the day-to-day happenings of the town, a narrative started to emerge.

The story took shape around the collision and contrast of American and Chinese culture, and Smith began to examine what it meant for a community to copy an inferred lifestyle of another country.

The documentary primarily follows the life of a woman named Annie Liu, who came to Jackson Hole, China, because of her love for American culture and her hope of fulfilling the ever-elusive American dream.

“Of course, the promise of the American dream is the pursuit of happiness and fulfilling everything you desire, and Annie moved to Jackson Hole, China, with that in mind,” Smith said. “She was hanging a lot of expectations on this town, and it represented more to her than just a place to own a house and a yard.”

The town is made up of a broad cast of characters: wealthy retirees, government officials, construction workers, real estate agents, hotel personnel and restaurant servers. Some people even work in Beijing and live in Jackson Hole during the weekend, commuting the almost two and a half hours to and from on a weekly basis.

Not everyone in China’s Jackson Hole had the same expectations of what living in a “Wild West” town might look like. For some the town represented community, but for others embodying American culture meant focusing on individualism.

“The town wasn’t really a proper community, more like different communities and different types of people living together,” Smith said. “And they all wanted different things from this town. Some loved American culture, some wanted to escape pollution, and some just wanted a big house.”

So, when it comes down to it, maybe the story of Jackson Hole, China, isn’t really all that different from Jackson Hole, USA.

“Watching the film may help locals answer the question ‘Why is Jackson Hole so popular in the Chinese imagination?’” Smith said. “I hope it might change how people think about their hometown. I’m hoping it will be like holding up a mirror - seeing your place through someone else’s eyes.

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