Creating the Landmarks: of Heritage Restoration

Written by Julen Madariaga on May 5th, 2010


One of the things that foreigners enjoy lamenting in China is the destruction of architectural heritage. It is understandable, modern China has a terrible record of heritage destruction, and today there are cities with 2,000 years of history where it is hard to find any trace of old construction. But the worst is that you can witness the destruction ongoing even today, before your very eyes.

It is true that in the last years there is a growing awareness of this cultural loss (and the loss of tourism revenues), and the authorities have started to take measures. Unfortunately, these measures come in the form of “restoration”, usually by the method of demolishing and re-building something vaguely similar, in brand new materials. Of the many infamous examples of this, perhaps the concrete-and-plastic Jing An Temple in Shanghai is the most obvious.

As all my readers probably now, XinTiandi is an old neighborhood in Shanghai that was “restored” some 10 years ago into an Old Shanghai themed commercial area. A favourite question of many visitors – and particularly Europeans - is how many walls are still standing from the original buildings. In fact, most of it is 100% new, and I often wonder how it is possible that such a creation actually does attract “cultural” tourists, who flock there to take pictures of each other.

Recently I saw an article on China News saying that “The Second Xintiandi” was being built on Jiangguo Road. The project’s real name is 建业里, and it is a residential complex that bears little relation with the present Xintiandi. But both have one thing in common: they promise to restore the Shanghai Shikumen [1] to their original beauty.

This weekend I rode my bike to the place and took some pictures to illustrate how the “Xintiandis” are created. See the gallery below:

I was very interested in the commercial copy of the project, I copy here with my obnoxious comments:

  1. Classic buildings with 80 years of history. [used to stand here]
  2. The Historic Shikumen will be restored to their original beauty. [Not]
  3. Creating the landmarks, Defining the Sky. [That's more like it]

I could only enter one part of the construction, but climbing on a railing outside I could see most of the rest. To be fair, there is a part close to the entrance (where the workers are) that has kept the old walls. The rest of the Shikumen has been completely demolished and it is being built from scratch, using reinforced concrete structure. In the picture taken from the crossroads you can appreciate the formwork.

I don’t think this is in any way important, the value of that Shikumen is insignificant compared to the old city of Kashgar or the Beijing Drum Tower Hutongs that are going to be “restored” soon. But it is a good illustration of the Chinese approach, and I will use it as intro to this series on heritage conservation that I was planning to do. More to come. Soon?

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  1. the Shikumen is a style of residential street typical of early 20th century Shanghai []

Comments so far ↓

  1. May

    I just commented on a friend’s Facebook post. I’m really starting to appreciate the Lilong houses here in Shanghai.

    [Reply to this comment]

  2. May

    Hi Julen, great post, hope more is coming soon.

    When talking about heritage conservation, I fell it’s very important to point out, that, in general terms, there is a huge difference in how people in China and the West understand authenticity and thus how they accept something being authentic or not. When visiting historical monuments, westerners only appreciate them when we can see actual historical leftovers, see what is left of some ancient ruins. Tampering with them destroys the authentic image of history.

    Many Chinese, in my opinion, are more interested in seeing the image of how things were, not caring so much about whether what they see is the “real deal” or just a (often a historical incorrect) reconstruction. Being able to stroll through for example a shikumen alley can thus give them an authentic image how it used to be, while a westerner will only look for the last remnants of the actual wall from 80 years ago.

    [Reply to this comment]

    Julen Reply:


    I see we are in tune. I have the same idea, and the point of this series was to explain this little by little. Besides, I also have some little theories to explain WHY Chinese don’t care so much about the “real deal”, and why Europeans really care so much (or do they really?) and since when.

    And even more difficult: WHO is right?

    I hope I will be writing about this very soon (but not before 1 week)

    [Reply to this comment]

    Thorsten Reply:

    looking forward to your theories, especially on who is right (if any?). I’ve been slightly irritated for some time now by especially European tourists (initially including myself) judging and condemning the so-called “theme-park” mentality of the Chinese, without reflecting on their own tourist mentality.

    [Reply to this comment]

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