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February 10, 2010

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An epitome of old Shanghai

THERE were known to be more than 9,000 shikumen (which literally means "stone gate") buildings in their heyday, accounting for more than 60 percent of all residential buildings in Shanghai. From a purely architectural perspective, these buildings are the products of specific historical periods.

Already more than a century old now, some of these buildings no longer adhere to modern residential concepts where spatial structure is concerned. It is only natural, therefore, for some of them to be demolished. However, these old buildings, dotting one block or another across Shanghai, are rich in nostalgic charm and represent the city's unique "architectural artworks."

In short, shikumen is an epitome of old Shanghai. Over their long history, these buildings witnessed the hardships of common people and the secret activities of revolutionists. It was in a shikumen house that the Communist Party of China held its first congress 88 years ago. They are also the birthplace of many literary, academic and artistic works.

In the past, shikumen neighborhoods were home to almost all imaginable facilities: factories, banks, hostels, warehouses, newspapers, schools and casinos. Even today, about one-third of Shanghai's population lives in shikumen buildings, where they are recasting history in a new age. For local people, shikumen embodies their memories, their family heritage, their friendship and their sense of community.

Shikumen buildings usually constitute "neighborhoods of alleys" that integrate private and public spaces. Blocks of these buildings would form huge alleyways, many of which featured gates at either end. Once the gates were closed at night, each alleyway would become a world unto itself where residents enjoyed privacy and the camaraderie of neighbors.

As population density grew, inhabitants gradually moved some of their activities into public areas. It can be said that these buildings, integrating Chinese and Western styles, are not only the outcome of an intermingling of Eastern and Western cultures, but also an essential symbol of the Shanghai cultural style.

Despite the gradual dismantling of many of these old buildings, local people have never abandoned the cultural resonance of shikumen.

The style has been widely adopted by many businesses to enrich the cultural identity of products, foster closer ties with consumers, promote marketing campaigns, and subsequently achieve the successful application of culture to commercial use. This process was particularly noticeable and proved to be extremely fruitful in the development of Xintiandi, a new landmark of Shanghai.

Xintiandi combines traditional alleys with modern-day architecture to form an area rich in history, culture, tourism, cuisine, business, fashion, entertainment and housing. It is not only an urban resort for the city to exhibit its historical and cultural charms, but also an ideal place for tourists to experience local history and traditional culture.

The well-preserved old bricks and tiles of traditional shikumen buildings blend seamlessly with modern architectural concepts. Xintiandi has transformed the original residential use of shikumen buildings and endowed them with commercial functions.

Behind nostalgic exteriors, each building on the inside has been tailored to the lifestyle of modern urbanites in the 21st century. Visitors walking in the streets in Xintiandi may have the sense of revisiting the old Shanghai of the 1920s and 1930s. However, once they step into a building, they will be immersed in modern surroundings and services.

It is my belief that this area will be a popular stop for visitors to the World Expo. It stands as a monument to our latest achievements and to the protection of our cultural heritage.

I also think that protective development, integrating the old and the new, should be a guiding principle worth of showcasing. Creative innovation stimulates reflection and imagination. The past becomes part of the present; the present becomes part of the future.

Finding the new in the old requires technological innovation. At the same time, we must protect intellectual property rights in our creative endeavors. These are themes World Expo 2010 seeks to promote and share with the rest of the world.

In conclusion, we should devote major efforts to utilizing and integrating cultural resources in order to emancipate the productive forces of the cultural industry and to promote the transformation of cultural resources into business resources.

That would enable us to promote coordinated and sustainable development of the economy and also promote domestic brands that enhance our national culture and increase our overall competitiveness.

Li Wuwei

A well-known economist specializing in industrial, quantitative and management economics, Li was born in 1942 in Dongyang, Zhejiang Province. He studied at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences and later at Saint Louis University in the US state of Missouri. Li is vice chairman of the 11th National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.


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