Shanghai Social Diary Literary Lunch: Shanghai’s Vintage & Modern Architecture

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In the vibrant metropolis of Shanghai, modern skyscrapers fill the skyline, but in the Xintiandi district, you can still discover architectural gems of the city’s storied past transformed into a popular entertainment hub.

One afternoon in Shanghai, I wandered over to the famed restaurant M on the Bund for a “Literary Lunch,” where American architect Ben Wood and Shanghainese author Andrea Mingfai Chu spoke about Shanghai’s architecture heritage.

In Shanghai, author Andrea Mingfai Chu and architect Ben Wood presented a talk at M on the Bund, where Australian owner Michelle Garnaut launched Literary Lunches.
M on the Bund is one of the architectural gems in the city, housed in the historic Nissin Shipping Building built in 1921 (center).
One of the first restaurants to open on the historic Bund in 1999, M provides a stunning view of Shanghai’s most famous sights along the riverside promenade.
The famed restaurant also overlooks Pudong, the gleaming financial district on the other side of Huangpu River.


Wood and Chu educated us about Shanghai’s shikumen houses. Popular in the city during the 1920s and 30s, shikumen are a type of lane house unique to Shanghai. At the height of their popularity in the 1930s, shikumen-style buildings housed as much as 80% of Shanghai’s total population.

L. to r.: Shikumen, which translates to “stone gate,” are accessed by a decorative stone arch, and are organized in straight, narrow alleyways called lilong.; Lilong neighborhoods are mazes of lanes that serve as outdoor living space where local residents socialize, store bikes and small plants, and wash and hang laundry.
Similar to Western townhouses, shikumen houses are adjacent to one another. The two- or three-story structures combine Western and Chinese architectural elements.
Shikumen are characterized by high brick walls enclosing a narrow front yard, and many offer tiny private courtyards to allow fresh air into the home.


Previously based in Boston, famed architect Ben Wood is a former Air Force pilot and an MIT graduate. He led the 2001 revitalization of Shanghai’s historic Xintiandi (pronounced shin tee-en dee) neighborhood, a hub of shikumen houses.

Wood certainly had the credentials for the Xintiandi renovation project: He collaborated on rebuilding the Chicago Bears Stadium, and was mentored by the late Ben Thompson, who revitalized Boston’s 150-year-old Faneuil Hall into a world-renowned marketplace and tourist attraction, which inspired Ben’s Xintiandi design.

American Architect Ben Wood, a Hemingway-like character often found wearing a white suit and Panama hat, discussed the transformation of Xintiandi.


In 1988, Wood and several other other architects were invited by Hong Kong real estate developer Vincent Lo, Chairman of the Shui On Group, to submit ideas for the redevelopment project in Shanghai. Originally, the developers wanted to demolish the neighborhood of dilapidated shikumen houses and replace them with a modern shopping mall complex, which is happening all over the city.

Wood had a different vision and dream of what Xintiandi could become: While other architects suggested razing the old rabbit warren of unique Shanghai-style houses, he instead proposed restoring and repurposing them for an upscale and trendy entertainment hub, while maintaining the original character of old Shanghai in this site.

While many Xintiandi lane houses were still used as homes and small shops, many were in disrepair, as seen below.


Wood won the bid for the re-development and moved to Shanghai, where he established Studio Shanghai. He has since become one of the most influential American architects in China, leaving his mark all over the country. His skills are highly in demand, as other cities want to replicate the commercial success of Xintiandi.

When Xintiandi opened to the public, it was an immediate success. Though run-down before the renovation, many historic buildings were saved in the revitalization of the neighborhood, and visitors seeking a trace of old Shanghai’s history were thrilled. It’s widely considered one of the best urban developments in China.

Wood has been called “a star in China” by Architectural Record editor Cliff Pierson. “China needed someone like Wood to show them you can make more money by saving rather than tearing down old buildings. No one had done that before,” he stated in a New York Times article.

Under Wood’s leadership, several blocks of shikumen houses were renovated and turned into some of the finest restaurants, chic cafes, and luxury boutiques in the city.
The reconfiguration created new outdoor pedestrian plazas, providing visitors with their choice of restaurants, cinemas, boutiques, galleries, and nightclubs.
Wood also created Taipingqiao Park, featuring a wide esplanade sweeping along the edge of an artificial lake, on top of a 200-space underground parking garage.
The old shikumen-style facades give way to interiors that have been completely re-shaped to suit modern needs.
Former lilong lanes are now lined with bars, restaurants, and galleries—even a Starbucks! It’s a perfect area to people watch.
Today the pedestrian-friendly Xintiandi is packed day and night with old and young alike, including local Shanghainese, citizens from around China, and foreigners visiting or living in the city.


“Ever mindful of the precinct’s authentic history, Mr. Wood implemented the redevelopment according to its old layout,” said Chu at the Literary Lunch. The restoration utilized original bricks and tiles, and doorframes, building heights, and rooftop terraces remained true to their original appearance.

As the talk continued, Wood showed us intriguing before-and-after photographs of Xintiandi.
Xintiandi before the renovation, seen from the air.
Xintiandi seen from the air after renovation.
A group of shikumen houses before.
The same shikumen houses after.
A building and empty lot before.
The building after, with the lot turned into a public square.


In the Xintiandi neighborhood, the address No. 1 Xintiandi is a historic three-story mansion originally designed by L. S. Zia in 1925, among the best preserved of the original houses in the neighborhood. Today it’s a private clubhouse owned by Vincent Lo, mastermind developer behind the Xintiandi project.

No. 1 Xintiandi mansion before renovation.
No. 1 Xintiandi mansion after renovation. Once a private home, today it’s a private club used for special events, exhibitions, and gourmet dinners.
Ben Wood utilized all the mansion’s original bricks and tiles in the restoration.
The mansion is decorated with a mix of traditional Chinese furniture and Shanghai Art Deco accents.
The bar, dining spaces, and meeting rooms are often used by visiting dignitaries.
The refurbished No. 1 Xintiandi mansion is a centerpiece surrounded by boutiques and restaurants in this entertainment center.


Ironically, next door to this successful commercial enterprise is a space that was once the headquarters of the local communist party, now used as the Museum of the First National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party.

Mao Zedong chaired a meeting there with the first comrades, and together they formed the Communist Party, which transformed China. My, how things have changed. Mao must be rolling over in his grave to see what has happened to the neighborhood.

The former headquarters of the local communist party before renovation, located on Xingye Road in Xintiandi.
The headquarters after renovation, now the Museum of the First National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party.


Since completing the Xintiandi project, Wood has undertaken projects all over China, ranging from complexes similar to Xintiandi, to residential developments with houses in the $25 million range. He has certainly found his métier and his soul in Shanghai.

The Dan Gui Residential Park in Suzhou celebrates and encourages the rich flora and fauna of the area.
The EXPO Chinese Housing Cultural Area Project in Shanghai features latticework, trees, bridges, and lookout spots to enhance the enjoyment of the Pudong waterfront.
Wuhan Tiandi only had nine historic buildings, so to maintain its character, Wood’s Studio Shanghai kept more than a hundred pre-existing trees, some 150 years old.


During the day, you’ll find Wood at his office in Xintiandi, but at night he can be found holding court at his minimalist DR Bar (“Design Resource”) in one of Xintiandi’s alleys. “I couldn’t find a good martini anywhere, so I established my own bar,” he said.

Today, DR Bar is one of the hottest haunts in town, frequented by tycoons, architects, designers, artists, and other creative types. For many of us who live in the neighborhood, including me, DR Bar has become our local pub. After business or dinners, we often stop by to say hello to friends and to Wood.

L. to r.: DR Bar (for “Design Resource”), on 181 Taicang Road, is located in a small back alley in the Xintiandi pedestrian thoroughfare.; Ben Wood stands in one of the narrow alleyways that was kept in the restoration of Xintiandi, where his DR Bar is located.


Hidden in a small alley, Wood’s DR Bar is easy to miss, but inside it yields a stunning dark space utilizing traditional Chinese elements repurposed in unexpected ways. The interior features the same materials used in Xintiandi’s original buildings, all sourced from within China.

The bar’s most striking feature is the ancient tiles that were sliced thin like salami, then applied to the walls. The look has been replicated around China, but Wood has no problem reminding us he did it first.

The serpentine walls are made from stacks of 4,000 tiles collected from the original roofs of Xintiandi residences from the 1930s. The curvy reclaimed roof tiles were then sliced one inch thick and applied to the wall.
The bar’s silver bar tops are made of mesh hand-woven from silver and copper thread by Tibetan women in Lijiang in western China’s Yunnan Province.

As a former fighter pilot during the Vietnam War, Wood once told me he “lived for adventure.” Well, he has found that and more in Shanghai, one of the most happening, exciting cites in the world today. It’s been a great adventure for me too!

An adventurer to the end, Wood drives a vintage three-wheeled sidecar motorcycle around the city and even into the countryside.


When I moved to Shanghai, I chose to live in Shanghai’s French Concession neighborhood, across the street from the Xintiandi district, as I wanted to be in the center of the action and be able to walk the area.

Since I admire historic buildings, I had the fantasy that I would live in one of the art deco shikumen gems. But reality hit when I learned of the required maintenance, and the problems for a part-timer, so instead I chose a modern building with all the amenities.

The view from my building looks down on a neighborhood of lane houses. Each year I watch as more and more of the traditional architecture is razed to make room for more high-rises.

Against the background of my residential tower, Ben Wood poses with his UK Morgan, a luxury brand of hand-crafted sports cars, whose Xintiandi showroom was designed by Wood.
I live in this modern high-rise apartment complex near Xintiandi because of ease: the location is in the center of town, everything is new, there’s a filtered water system, internet access, and some guest services.
This was the view from my apartment in 2008, when the streets were full of life, packed with markets, neighbors socializing outside, and people bicycling.
On the outskirts of the traditional shikumen houses, there are encroaching high-rises. One by one, the shikumen are being torn down and replaced by modern complexes.
The high-rise apartment buildings may offer more convenient living (they certainly feature better kitchens and bathrooms), but they lack the character of the old homes and don’t offer the community feeling.


At the Literary Luncheon, Author Andrea Mingfai Chu explained that she had interviewed dozens of residents who live in these renovated vintage houses, and shared with us their fascinating stories, along with her own insight. Through the process, she says she gained a new appreciation for this form of living.

Chu grew up in Shanghai, in a traditional shikumen abode. She later moved to the US, working and studying at Georgetown University and Trinity Washington University, where she earned dual degrees in Accounting and Music. Chu returned to her hometown of Shanghai in 2002 as the International Director of Bertelsmann Asia Publishing.

Besides being a busy publisher, Andrea also visits and writes about wine regions around the world for Chinese lifestyle magazines.
L. to r.: Chu’s book Shanghai Interiors features recently renovated pre-1949 historic homes in the former French Concession and
International Settlement neighborhoods.; Shanghai Interiors is published in English, Spanish, and French, and in a bi-lingual format (Chinese and English) as Modern Shanghai Vintage Houses.

Although I already possessed Chu’s book, Shanghai Interiors, in my library, the photos of the city’s architecture are so beautiful and the text so informative that I stocked up with more books to give as gifts to friends.

Author Andrea Mingfai Chu with writer Jeanne Lawrence. Andrea speaks fluent English after studying and working in the USA for several years.
Literary Luncheon guests: artist Sandra Lee and Kathy Zhu, with author Andrea Mingfai Chu.


Although we foreigners may be nostalgic for these unique homes, Chu reminded us that she grew up in one of these lane houses and it wasn’t all that nice. “The houses today are different than how I remember from childhood,” she told us. “Memories of the communal kitchen and bathroom are unpleasant.”

However, she concedes that the newly renovated ones are quite an improvement. “I never imagined old houses could be so beautiful,” she said.

Many lament the destruction of these homes in the name of progress. In the past, foreigners were the ones that appreciated these traditional homes, but now some of the newly rich local Chines are interested too.

Built in 1937, this three-story Shang Fang Garden Villa in the French Concession was modernized in 2004, preserving many of the original Art Deco details.
The dream of many foreigners is to live in a home such as the Shang Fang Garden Villa, which allows an abundance of natural light and illustrates how to refurbish a formerly run-down house.
L. to r.: Today, some wealthy Chinese citizens are looking
for special properties like the Shang Fang Garden Villa, understanding its historic significance.; Built in 1935, this Spanish-style house is now used as the residence of the German consul-general.
This spacious shikumen has housed two “kings”—the “King of Flowers,” who built it in 1924, and the inventor of non-combustible cigarettes, or “King of Cigarettes,” who bought it in 1952.
The owners of this lane house, built in 1947, sought to incorporate a modern lifestyle with the home’s traditional setting.
This four-story house, built in 1927, features a small garden decorated with traditional Chinese porcelain furniture.
Locally sourced building materials and geometric Art Deco elements such as the rounded doorways were used in the 1927 house’s renovation.
The 1927 Art Deco house features an incredibly spacious 6,400-square-foot garden—twice the space of the 3,200 square-foot house!

Shikumen houses are popular enough that in 2010, the Chinese government added the construction technique to the national non-physical cultural heritage register. But sadly, even cultural status isn’t always enough to save these historical homes. Many are still being torn down and replaced with bland high-rises instead.

Photographs by Jeanne LawrenceStudio Shanghai, and Shuyi Publishing.

*Urbanite Jeanne Lawrence reports on lifestyle and travel from her homes in San Francisco, Shanghai, and New York, and wherever else she finds a good story.

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