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Sunday, August 25, 2013

Terminally hip stone gates

As hú​tòngs 胡同 are to Běi​jīng 北京, so shí​kù​mén 石库门 are to Shàng​hǎi 上海. Or perhaps I should say "were", for when it comes to Shanghai's traditional architectural style, genuine examples are apparently getting harder and harder to find in China's ongoing rush to knock old things down and put up new stuff in their place. The future of old buildings in Shanghai (if not for all of China) may depend on the success of developments such as the place we visited today, Xīn​tiān​dì 新天地. In Xintiandi, shikumen have been renovated, rebuilt and redeveloped into a pedestrian-only shopping zone full of expensive restaurants and designer boutiques. This particular development appears to be a smashing success, but it's still too early to tell what effect Chinese-style gentrification will have on the country's urban landscape. For a family such as ours, Xintiandi makes for an enjoyable, if somewhat pricey, weekend excursion.

Our Sunday outing began in Xintiandi's less impressive South Block, which is dominated by a modern shopping mall. Inside, we had an early lunch at a Chinese/Western fusion restaurant called Michael. As in the given name only, and without a possessive.

We didn't spend much time in this part of Xintiandi other than to eat. Here, Amber poses at the end of the South Block, before we walked under the arch and across a small street into the more atmospheric North Block.

But not before stopping in at the local post office, where my daughter had a postcard made with her photo resembling a postage stamp. It was immediately mailed to a certain grandparent back in the U.S.

Though primarily aimed at shoppers, Xintiandi does boast a couple of sightseeing attractions. One is the Site of the First National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party 中国一大会址纪念馆. It was in the building above that the first meeting of the CCP took place on July 23, 1921. Inside are photographic exhibitions on the history of the party and a few relics from Shanghai's days as an International Settlement, while upstairs there's a diorama consisting of wax figures of the delegates at their historic get-together, all tied together with the kind of Communist propaganda (numerous references to the proletariat and bourgeoisie) that you seldom see or hear these days in the era of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics. It's too bad photography wasn't permitted.

Shanghai played an important role in the early history of the Chinese Communist Party. The communists were very active in the city throughout the 1920's, until Chiang Kai-shek  将介石 and the ruling Kuomintang 国民党 one day in 1927 decided to arm the city's gangsters with guns and KMT uniforms. The resulting massacre drove the party underground, while the decapitation of the party's leadership helped Máo​ Zé​dōng 毛泽东 in his quest to take over the CCP. Mao, in turn, would eventually abandon the party's urban campaigns and instead focus his attention on building a base of support among the oppressed peasantry, which in turn would eventually lead to the Communists' victory in the Chinese Civil War 国共内战. All this has little to do with the souvenir I bought today at the Maoist shrine, and which I probably won't be wearing to work anytime soon.

Xintiandi's other attraction is the Shikumen Open House Museum 石库门民居陈列馆. It was really a pity that photography wasn't allowed here, either, as the museum makes for a worthwhile visit. This reconstruction of an upper-class family shikumen is filled with the kind of everyday objects such a family would have used in the early 20th-century. As a result, the displays are brought to life in a way that more drier (and emptier) museums could never hope to achieve.

You can't prohibit picture-taking on the balcony, even if we are living in an authoritarian state

The North Block does a much better job of incorporating the shikumen architecture. The Häagen-Dazs in the background came in handy as an expensive coffee break when a thunderstorm suddenly rolled through the area.

The side alleys are known in Chinese as lòng​táng 弄堂. They're ideal for standing around in, trying to look cool.

This impressive structure isn't a shikumen. It's the private club of the Hong Kong developers who created Xintiandi. No doubt they stand out on the balcony at times and watch the money come rolling in.

This cafe was located across the street from the entrance to Xintiandi's North Block. The reason I've posted this picture is because of the name. Not "Kafe Laku" - 猫屎咖啡, or māo​shǐ kā​fēi, literally translates as "Cat shit coffee". Fancy a cup of their joe?

The last thing we did this afternoon before heading home was to take a stroll along a street filled with shops selling qí​páo 旗袍. My wife is in the market for one of these traditional Chinese dresses, and hopefully picked up some ideas while we were.


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