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Written by Pan Fei   
Thursday, 16 April 2009

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Shanghai's stylish Xin Tian Di
 A neighborhood of old Shikumen (a type of tenement found only in Shanghai) has been saved by a restoration that turned the old stone buildings into boutiques, clubs and restaurants. Xin Tian Di is not only China's finest historical redevelopment project, but also a model for Asia. Ironically, this historic district's rebirth as a hotspot of bourgeoisie splendors is all because of Chairman Mao.

 

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COFFEE ISN'T THE ONLY THING BREWING in the chic cafes of Xin Tian Di,
the hottest new entertainment district in Shanghai. A revolutionary
spirit reverberates through the two-square block development that saved
scores of historic brick buildings from the wrecking ball, by
transforming them into some of the city's finest clubs, restaurants and
boutiques.
  Revolution is practically a tradition in this charming neighborhood
of old Shikumen, a type of early 1900s tenement unique to Shanghai.
  Eighty-two years ago, meetings held inside one of the old Shikumen at
Xin Tian Di (pronounced Shin tea-en dee) were chaired by the original
Chairman, Mao Zedong. Attending were the first comrades. Together, they
formed the Communist Party, which transformed all of China.
  Despite its lofty name, Xin Tian Di - literally, New, Heaven, Earth -
has more modest hopes, merely intending to revolutionize entertainment,
shopping and dining in Shanghai.
  Already, it's set a new benchmark for style that is fast being
replicated around China. And the success of the project could have even
greater impact as a role model for historical redevelopment not just in
China, but across Asia.
  Credit goes to Benjamin Wood, an American architect who oversaw the
$170 million restoration of the neighborhood of old apartment blocks
with traditional courtyard-style of construction.
  His relationship with Xin Tian Di was a case of love at first sight.
"I flew into Shanghai," he recalls, "and was given 24 hours to decide
whether I wanted to do it. I was blown away.
  "I saw the magic of the place. It was amazing. There was laundry
hanging everywhere, all these people, parents with kids, flying kites,
the whole litany of human experience."
  Yet Wood - a protégé of famed architect Benjamin Thompson, who turned
Boston's 150-year-old Faneuil Hall market into a world-renowned tourist
attraction - is more realist than romantic when it comes to
restoration.
  "I disdain preservation," he explains. "I don't believe you should
proclaim things dead and turn them into museums. I believe you should
breath life into places. That's my goal. I want to make living areas,
where people can eat, drink and enjoy themselves."
  A stroll through Xin Tian Di shows he has achieved his aim. The place
has been packed day and night since a second phase added more outlets
along with cinemas, ice cream parlors and craft booths last year.
   "Xin Tian Di has transformed nightlife and entertainment in
Shanghai," says Bob Boyce, owner of several restaurants and pubs in
town, including KABB, one of Xin Tian Di's first openings.
  "Sometimes I just sit here and watch all the people go by. That's the
real beauty of Xin Tian Di. You see people, all kinds of people, from
all over the world, all enjoying themselves."
  The project has proven a critical as well as commercial hit. Local
historian Tess Johnston, author of "A Last Look: Western Architecture
in Old Shanghai" concedes concerns at the outset that the
gentrification of the old district would ruin its charm.
  "But I've come around. I've seen the alternative and realize the
future of Shanghai is more Xin Tian Di's."
   Johnston bemoans the wholesale destruction of so much of Shanghai's
architectural heritage. Around the city's evocative old French Quarter,
the old brick blocks are being razed, replaced by modern high-rises and
shopping malls.
  That, too, seemed the fate awaiting Xin Tian Di's stone-gate
Shikumen. But, in an ironic turn of events, Mao helped save the
district, which has now become a celebration of fine food, nightlife
and flashy consumer goods - practically everything he and his party
opposed.
  When Hong Kong developers Shui On Group were given the rights to a
massive 128 acres of prime downtown land, one stipulation was that the
old party hall had to be preserved.
  First Communist Party Hall is now a museum, but cloistered around it
on a delightful maze of cobbled streets are scores of trendy outlets
reminiscent of San Francisco's Ghirardelli Square or Faneuil Hall.
  The outlets range from a Vidal Sassoon salon to the requisite
Starbucks. There are flashy French and Italian restaurants, La Maison
and Va Bene, plus nightclubs like Star East, a sort of Planet Hong Kong
theme club launched by Jacky Chan and other Cantonese stars.
  Design is what makes Xin Tian Di so attractive, inside and out. Each
of the two to three-story Shikumen looks unique, reflecting the
exquisitely-preserved twists and turns of an evolving neighborhood,
over the decades.
  Interiors are equally eye-catching; some of Shanghai's best artists
and designers worked overtime on each shop and restaurant, determined
to dazzle each other.  Take TMSK, which has been turning heads with a
bar handspun of exotic glass, from the walls to bar-top and stools.
  Xin Tian Di is bolstered by the competitive spirit of one-upmanship:
zesty tapas are served along with spicy salsa music at Cuban club and
restaurant Che; big wall murals set a funky mood at La Bene (peak
inside the playful bathrooms with stone basins and walls filled with
butterfly displays); Ye Shanghai uses red lanterns and classy antique
settings to evoke the spirit of Shanghai's swinging 1930s heyday.
 The result is a magical cornucopia recalling this city's former
reputation for fusion, of East and West, old and new. And it satisfies
at every level with surprises at every turn: an old door hinge or
stunning balcony view of surrounding skyscrapers soaring over rounded
doorways and century-old roof tiles.
  As a result, Shui On has been besieged by offers to replicate Xin
Tian Di around China. Already, work has started on a similar project in
Hangzhou, a lakeside city southwest of Shanghai.
  Nor are locals any less enthusiastic. "It's beautiful," says one old
man in his late 70s on a visit to Xin Tian Di. "It's not like Shanghai
was; nothing can be like that again. This is new, but it keeps the
flavor of old Shanghai."
  Ironically, everybody's favorite restoration almost never happened,
at least not quite this way. The original development plan, according
to Wood, involved knocking down most Shikumen, then rebuilding a new
version of Old Shanghai in a tiny area around the Party Hall.
  Wood, a latecomer to the project, appealed to Shui On Chairman
Vincent Lo to take a different tact. "I cannot say this strongly
enough," he wrote Lo. "Look past the obvious, the dirt, the decay, the
crowded, unsanitary conditions and see (the area) as what it is...a
cultural artifact that could for generations to come symbolize the
meeting of East and West.
  "Every one who visits Shanghai is looking to find a trace, a piece of
the history of one of the most famous cities of the early Twentieth
Century."
  The crowds at Xin Tian Di provide vindication; likewise the flood of
offers from other Chinese cities to do similar projects. Not that Wood
intends to replicate Xin Tian Di.
  "The danger, I guess is that it becomes a cliché, like some sort of
Disney," he says. "Over time, though, I believe Xin Tian Di will be
recognized as a classic. It will age very well."
  Wood isn't merely paying lip service to his creation that has quickly
become Shanghai's favorite leisure zone. He's also enthusiastically
involved, and has opened his own bar in Xin Tian Di, the ultra-
minimalist DR.
  The name means Design Resource, and it's become a favored hang-out
for local architects and designers. Almost entirely black, DR sports
huge slabs of polished inkstone and a bar topped with woven strands of
silver so tight liquids reportedly cannot penetrate. Hence, despite a
peaking career in America, the architect has all but relocated to
Shanghai.
 "It's the only place in the world I know where you can watch pop
culture created in front of you. There is so much energy. It's like
Paris in the 1930s," he says. "There is so much artistic freedom. That
might sound funny, but it's amazing. Things happen fast here."
  Of course, it took decades for the rebirth of Xin Tian Di, an old
classic that has clearly come of age. In the process, China has finally
had a chance to taste the kind of style and diversity of entertainment
unknown until now.
(Information from baidu)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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