Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Xintiandi: Take 2

SHANGHAI - A few years ago, I all but swooned over Shanghai's redeveloped Xintiandi - a cluster of vintage stone buildings transformed by Western architects into a warren of shops, bars, cafes and restaurants, complete with its own manmade lake and a mini-forest of mature trees uprooted and brought to the metropolis from all over China.

On my return to Shanghai this month - my fifth, or it it sixth? time in town - I had a more critical take on the place. Developed by American architect Benjamin Wood, of Boston, Xintiandi, which also saw input from the San Francisco office of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, seems less charming than it had when I first saw it. Certainly, it is still beautiful to look at. Wood et al. basically cleared what had been a slum, reclaiming stone shikumen houses, with their distinctive stone gates and made it a prime example of urban rescue. Rather than simply level the place for highrises, as is happening over much of China, they built something new on the bones of the old.

This time, Xintiandi struck me as decidedly touristy. Of course, this may have little or nothing to do with the architects who brought it into being, and everything to do with the mercantile impulse of others. Roughly five years old, this development in central Shanghai, on the Puxi (west) side of town, has lost much of its early arty sheen. Anchored by a Starbucks on one end, a German chain brewpub and restaurant near the middle and a modern cineplex that sits jarringly on the other end, Xintiandi seems more ordinary than I'd remembered. Heavy consumer use has reduced its distinctiveness rather than given it a deeper, lived-in quality. Moreover, I saw way more people with Western features there, and markedly fewer Chinese faces. Xintiandi had injitially been popular with Shanghaiese, but that may have just been curiosity. A Hong Kong-born acquaintance of mine remarked "Chinese people don't think much of this.'' "Is it because it presents a somewhat idealized picture of China to the West?'' I asked. "I think so,'' he said.

I came away from my visit thinking there must be a more attractive shopping and eating district, and a cheaper one. I needed to find it Following the advice of locals, I walked the streets of the leafy French Concession, just following my nose. Before long, I found a nicely interlaced tangle of lanes and little alleyways, many of them lined with one of a kind shopsand lovely plane trees. Local advice also took me to an enchanting Sino-Franco tea shop, also in the French Concession, called Song Fang Maison de The. Co-owner Florence Sampson - she's the French half - has selected 20 French gourmet blends and 40 distinctive Chinese teas and is selling them out of her year-old shop, with its collection of vintage tea tins. Poking around the French Concession more than made up for my mild disappointment with how Xintiandi is aging. It's the best place in town for a visitor who wants to blend some style with the local color of a great city.

Song Fang tea house, by the way, is located at 227 Yongjia Road (near Shanxi South Road), telephone 86.21.6433 8283, Shanghai, China.

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