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China district famous for art copies struggles to change reputation

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SHENZHEN Ms Ma Chunyan's hands appear to hold Vincent Van Gogh's dreamscape vision of the night sky, the painter's iconic work The Starry Night.

But the 32-year old Chinese artist is actually handling a 1,000 yuan (S$200) reproduction that she made in one day from an image on her mobile phone, not Van Gogh's masterpiece estimated to be worth more than US$100 million (S$137 million).

Ms Ma is one of 8,000 painters creating copies of Western art in Dafen, a tiny but densely populated district in Shenzhen, China.

Once an obscure village of 300 rice growers, Dafen became an international hub of painting reproductions in a few short years after former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping opened up China's economy in 1978.

The town once accounted for 75 per cent of the world's oil painting reproductions.

Dafen has 1,200 galleries and art businesses, employing 20,000 people. Its output reached 4.15 billion yuan last year.

But as China celebrates the 40th anniversary of opening up today, Dafen ponders its fortunes, which have waned since the 2008 global financial crisis when foreign demand for art reproductions fell and never returned.

The declining overseas orders have spurred the local government to embark on a plan to transform Dafen into a producer of original works instead.

Success remains elusive, however, with demand for Dafen's original art tepid and artists who are interested in creating original works few and far between.

To attract artists, Dafen has invested 100 million yuan in an art museum and built 268 apartments to accommodate the painters who live there.

The town now has 300 artists focusing on original works.

However, Chen Jingyang, an original artist who has been in Dafen for 12 years, is not optimistic about the future.

"The big buyers know that the market here used to be famous for copies, and it was a low-end market, so not many are coming for the original paintings," Chen said. - REUTERS

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