In the late 1990s, thousands of Shanghai's old shíkùmén (石库门, "stone gate") houses were leveled to make room for high-rise developments. Throughout the city, sterile office and apartment blocks replaced traditional neighborhoods where vibrant street culture and tight-knit family life had long thrived. The narrow brick lanes and communal courtyards that define shikumen—a unique blend of Chinese and Western architectural features—were seen by the government and developers as impediments to progress in a city that, in the wake of economic reform, had little patience with calls to preserve its architectural heritage.
Then came Xintiandi (Xīntiāndì, 新天地).
The notion that the old urban fabric of shikumen could be woven into a 21st century metropolis met resistance from big developers and officials, but the experiment was ultimately given the green light. Xintiandi was an instant success, and similar developments have popped up in Hangzhou and other Chinese cities, proving that China's rapid modernization need not obliterate the past.
Xintiandi is now a bustling pedestrian zone featuring upscale shopping, dining and entertainment housed in rebuilt shikumen. Popular with tourists, expats and Shanghainese nouveaux riches, the shopping center features high-end designer retail from names like Shanghai Tang, Vivienne Tam and Hugo Boss and "lifestyle" stores like the BMW Lifestyle Boutique, Arnold Palmer golf shop and Simply Life's furnishings and interior design concepts.
Slightly more pedestrian brand-name shopping is also on hand at Benetton, Camper and French Connection. International dining options include KABB for burgers and American-style dining, Simply Thai, yè shanghai's dim sum and contemporary Shanghainese cuisine, and beer and bratwurst at Paulaner Brauhaus, to name just a few. Taking advantage of shikumen lanes and courtyards, many eateries offer outdoor seating in warm months.
Critics argue that Xintiandi is too much of a Western-friendly consumer playground and a very poor representation of traditional shikumen style. Indeed, the rebuilt complex is far more upscale American mall than authentic Shanghai lane house. Yet there's no denying the development has demonstrated the viability of architectural preservation and restoration in a city that appeared to be on its way to destroying every last shikumen. True, Shanghai continues liquidate old neighborhoods at an alarming rate—often over the protests of local residents and historical preservationists—but the success of Xintiandi does create new hopes for compromise between the economic demands of the new China and the charms of the old.
Photo © Andy Liang
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