Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Xintiandi and Shikumen

My last two updates have been about Old Shanghai, its historic Shikumen houses, and Shanghai's not-unwarranted proclivity for tearing them down. An alternative, of sorts, can be found at Shanghai's Xintiandi. It's an area downtown immediate to the major shopping street of Huaihai Lu, and has an interesting history: it's billed as the meeting place of the first Chinese Communist party meeting. So rather than tearing down the historic site to build yet another shopping district, the meeting place was left untouched and the surroundings were converted into something that put the shikumen to a new purpose - an elite shopping center, acting as a dramatic counterpoint to the origin of the Communist party I guess.

I'm a big fan of re-purposing old buildings. It adds character to a city, it's also frequently served as the basis for urban revivals. However with Xintiandi my feelings are mixed. While the basic idea is great, it's also true that shikumen are claustrophobic. A direct conversion of a shikumen would be nothing but small spaces, narrow alleys, and a layout that would make it difficult to casually browse. It would be a little too quirky, some modification is inevitable. However I think Xintiandi took it way too far in the opposite direction, leading to this:

The difference above is obvious, it's impossible to find such wide spaces in a real shikumen. Xintiandi is long and narrow with a very wide pathway in middle, with shops and restaurants on either side. Really the feel is the same as any other outdoor mall in the US, but with a light shikumen motif, with touches such as colored bricks and decorative doors directly off the street. There's nothing wrong with that by itself, and there's plenty of Shikumen being torn down to make way for skyskrapers. On the other hand, Xintiandi bills itself as a restoration rather than a ground-up rebuild, and its success has led to other projects seeking to adopt the same approach to preservation.

But it is financially successful, and particularly popular with Hong Kong tourists. It's the most elite shopping areas in town - and one that few foreign residents of Shanghai particularly care for, because the restaurants are very expensive and often mediocre, and just because it's generally incredibly uncool. Although I did have an excellent if entirely froo-froo meal at the fusion restaurant, T8:

On an entirely different note, if there's anybody in Shanghai who might be interested in jamming either old-school Hawaiian Music or stupid indie pop, please either leave a response or give me a mail at jeff oaktowncrack com.


Leo said...

In the pictures of your last several posts are mostly not shikumen. Shikumen has its own definition - the stone or brick framed front portal.

Most buildings in these pictures are just houses, many of which are actually front row houses of a typical courtyard house constellation, which has a more pronounced appearance in northern China.

Jeff Rutsch said...

True, true, thanks for the post and sorry for being lax - I use shikumen as a shorthand for old brick houses of that general style, which is not accurate. A better breakdown of the last three updates would be:

Xintiandi pictures: not shikumen, but influenced by the general look (which is how I put it)

The fate of shikumen: all the rubble buildings are actually shared houses, although it's from a district with shikumen.

Old Shanghai: The 1st picture is a house, not a shikumen, and it looks like the 4th picture shows the outside of houses in the background.

I'll update the pages.