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October 24, 2009

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New look for old Nanjing: glitz, history and some Xintiandi

ALL those interested in Chinese history should look toward Nanjing, capital city of Jiangsu Province. As the capital of four dynasties, its streets contain historical architecture from almost every important era.

Until the 1980s much of the heart of the old city had remained untouched. But since 2003 major renovations in the southern part of the old city have elicited nationwide attention and debate.

Dubbed the Nanbuting project, it's one of the most important renovations of historical architecture currently underway in Nanjing.

The grand buildings of the Republic of China period may be the most visited tourist spots in Nanjing. But the old city has kept a rich record of "vernacular" architecture, wells and villas from as early as the Song (960-1279) and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties, when it first became the nation's capital.

The Nanbuting project is named after the area's former government offices handling detention and sentencing of criminals in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

An area of 168,000 square meters, it is developed by Chengjian Group on behalf of the Nanjing government.

A report released by the developer says over 79 percent of this area is set aside for new developments. Uses for the remaining 35,000 square meters include, but are not limited to, architectural preservation.

The developer's reports list 48 buildings in the entire area to be protected -- mainly listed buildings that are large and well preserved, such as Ganxi Villa that belonged to a Qing Dynasty scholar and book collector.

The future of older and more difficult-to-preserve buildings hangs in the balance.

Plans for the renovations were first drawn up in 2003. Then came four years of revisions and deliberations before ground was finally broken in April 2007.

The long gestation period reflected the complex network of stakeholders with an interest in the project's outcome.

Nanjing residents, national architecture experts, scholars and Chinese media are watching keenly.

Currently most of the residents in the area have been relocated and it is shrouded in scaffolding and construction sites. The whole project is estimated to take another three years to complete,

But we need not wait until then to get an idea of the results. We need only to look at Xinanli Historical Street that was unveiled in late 2008. It is touted by Chengjian Group as a model for the rest of the developments.

Xinanli emulates Shanghai's ultra-lucrative Xintiandi, which consists of a faux historical street, made up of shikumen (stone-gated) houses renovated for high-end dining, shopping and nightlife.

Of Xinanli's 41,400 square meters, developers say about half are devoted to a similar historical-looking entertainment complex. The rest consists of a ring of luxury apartments and offices attached around the outside.

Xintiandi has often been criticized for setting both a good and bad example for the development of old architecture in China. On one hand, it showed that old buildings have huge value, but on the other hand it forever tied that value to commercial use.

Chinese preservationists and experts expressed the same concerns in relation to the Nanbuting project.

In April this year, 29 cultural scholars wrote to central government, raising their concerns about the project. This follows a similar letter from 16 scholars in 2006. In both cases, the project was suspended for a short while.

In its defense, Xintiandi's designer Ben Wood has often countered that not a single wall was moved an inch or made higher or lower.

However, Xinanli's historical-style street is a completely new rebuild, with buildings now in a uniform shape and color in contrast to the area's original historical variety.

Chinese media have reported that Xinanli's streets are two or three times wider than the originals.

In September this year, developers responded to the issues by organizing a forum on preservation.

The event was hosted in the Nianyi conference hall, a model "historical-style" development in Xinanli.

In keeping with the rest of the area, Nianyi is a newly built, courtyard house-like compound that recreates some of the old buildings on which it now stands, including a Kunqu Opera stage. It is now an elaborate venue for luxury business meetings and banquets in shiny gold, metal and crystal.

The Kunqu Opera stage has also been remade for our neon age with digital screens on two of its four square sides, and surround sound speakers.

At the event hosted in the glittering Nianyi conference hall, Chinese media listened to an art professor soliloquize on what history means to the city; a sociologist elaborate on her childhood in the poor conditions of the old city; and a Germany-based architect talk on unrelated international preservation projects.

"Everything that can be saved, we have saved," says Tao Wenyang, chief executive of the Chengjian Group. "And our motto is 'to repair the rest to be as historically authentic as possible'."

Meanwhile, construction went on, as the second intervention only stopped proceedings for one day. How to go there

By train

There are direct high-speed trains from Shanghai to Nanjing. It starts from Shanghai Railway Station and takes about two hours. Cost is a little more than 90 yuan (US$13).

By car

Nanjing is about 300 kilometers away from Shanghai. Take G2 Jinghu (Beijing-Shanghai) Expressway, the former A11 Huning (Shanghai-Nanjing) Expressway and get off at Nanjing exit. It takes about three hours.


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