Wang Fangqing: Why Xintiandi isn't Shanghainese

Wang Fangqing: Why Xintiandi isn't Shanghainese

Shanghai's major entertainment and tourist attraction is celebrating its 10th anniversary, but has it really lived up to its fame?

xintiandi TMAIDuring Shanghai’s massive Shikumen demolitions in the 1990s, a few blocks of traditional residential buildings near Taiping Bridge (太平桥) dodged the destruction, due to a US$150 million investment by the Hong Kong-based real estate behemoth Shui On.

A decade later, these buildings are known as Xintiandi (新天地), which translates as "New Heaven and Earth". It's Shanghai’s signature entertainment and tourist destination, and it doesn't hesitate to brag about its Shikumen theme.

I have a confession to make: as a born-and-bred Shanghainese, I have failed to be impressed by Xintiandi's “Shanghainess."

Although the Shui On project has helped the city boost its tourism industry, those highly-renovated Shikumen buildings have gradually lost their Shanghai touch and no longer feel like a true part of this city.

A Shanghai tourist landmark

As the first project of its kind in Shanghai to successfully combine commercialism and tourism with history and culture, I admit, Xintiandi has set an excellent example for the city to follow.

Xintiandi has achieved more success in one decade than the Bund, Yu Garden, Qibao water town and Nanxiang have endeavored to achieve for half a century.

  • Xintiandi has appeared in almost every single promotional video of Shanghai as the essential tourist spot. Its rent has risen 12-fold over the past decade. The whole neighborhood is now better-known as “Xintiandi” instead of “Taipingqiao,” its former name.  A metro station was built directly under the Xintiandi mall, and the station was named after it.

Although Shanghai’s Xintiandi has been so successful that Shui On Land -- Shui On's mainland arm -- has transplanted the “Tiandi” retail model to eight other Chinese cities, the ambiance of the complex has drifted away from its original purpose: being uniquely Shanghai.

Not just Shikumen

Shanghai flavor is a lifestyle. It does not equal to just having Shikumens on-site, especially if they are largely revamped with most of its interiors restructured.

Shanghai flavor is a lifestyle. It does not equate to just having Shikumens on-site, especially if they are largely revamped with most of their interiors restructured.

Back when I as a student, my home was just across the road from Taiping Bridge. My neighbors would frequent the markets on Zizhong Lu, Shunchang Lu and Ji’an Lu.

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The shrill sounds of bargaining in Shanghainese and the smell of fish, meat and fresh vegetables were all distinct features of the neighborhood.

A walk to Huaihai Zhong Lu would grant glimpses of classic Shanghainese lane life: the aroma of deep-fried shrimps wafting out from kitchen windows; a young girl -- with her hair being permed -- discussing with her neighbor the prices and the skills of the new hairdresser; children gathering and playing traditional alley games; shirtless men drinking beer outdoors with their best mates.

But now if you take the same stroll, you are more likely to see Southeast Asian women buying expensive dresses or Western men eating pasta. This scene could take place anywhere in the world.

xintiandiXintiandi is lack of real Shanghainese patrons. Photo by Flickr user <a href="" target="_blank"></a>

What's wrong

Xintiandi’s biggest shortcoming is its lack of real Shanghainese patrons.

Its Shikumen house international coffee chains and pizza shops, expensive Western and Chinese restaurants and swanky bars to see and be seen in.

It is a playground for the rich, and is completely opposite to the Shanghainese cultural identity -- the shrewdness. While Shanghainese care about appearances, we rarely pay highly inflated prices.

That is why you can hear all sorts of different languages and see many different shades of skin colors in Xintiandi, but very few Shanghainese-speaking locals -- in the place that promotes Shanghai culture as its biggest feature.

The future

It's been announced that Shui On plans to take over the nearby Dongtai Lu antiques market in the next five years and upgrade it into a street of antiques, galleries and auction houses.

They also hope to attract some Broadway-style theaters to inject a touch of high culture into the heart of the city.

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It sounds great on the surface, but is likely to come at a price.

After making a mint by touting itself as a celebration of Shanghainese culture in the past 10 years, I wish Xintiandi could really live up to its fame in its second decade, and truly return to being a place where local Shanghainese, too, can enjoy

The opinions of this commentary are solely those of Wang Fangqing.

Wang Fangqing is a Shanghai-based freelance reporter. She writes about business in English and lifestyle in Chinese.

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