People, look east.
There you will see...
In its agglutinated form, the name looks a bit like Xanadu, and that is good. For it is a place devoted to luxury, coloured by history, just like the place in the poem. In reality, the name of Xin Tian Di means "New World, New Sky", and this is an even better title. For the whole ground has undergone a facelift, and new high-rise buildings touch the sky. At the moment, it is a magnet for Shanghai's New Chinese who would like to enjoy the modern life. To European expatriates at the beginning of the 20th century, it was a gathering point for what they considered Oriental hedonism, consisting largely of opium dens and brothels.
Back in the days when Shanghai was known as the Paris of the East, the area that is now Xin Tian Di was part of the French Concession. Avenue Joffre, the main street, was peopled by Frenchmen and White Russians, as well as many rich, intellectual, or communist Chinese. Thus, this area of decadence also became the birthplace of the Chinese Communist Party, and the site for China's first People's Congress.
Naturally, the area became an interesting mix of Occident and Orient. The most lasting symbol of this are the Shikumen, or stone gate, houses. Unique to Shanghai, these are houses inspired by the traditional Chinese ones, but built out of brick instead of wood. The doorways are unmistakenly French, however, with elaborate stone carvings. These have given the buildings their Chinese name.
Wars, time and little money for repair have made the houses slowly crumble. Their death blow seemed to be the explosive economical growth of Shanghai in the nineties, when skyscrapers were popping out of the earth like poppies. As the wrecking balls got closer, the shikumen and the memories of the old days seemed doomed to disappear.
Then, out of the blue, arrives Shui On, a company from Hong Kong. Their idea for redevelopment are revolutionary, but not bloody. They propose to keep the old alleys, restore the old houses, and make the area around Avenue Joffre (now called Huaihai Lu) into a trendy blend of new and old. The project of Xin Tian Di is born.
The firm did of course not do this purely out of love for tradition. They saw a business opportunity in placing shops, bars and restaurants behind attractive, elegant facades. A man-made lake, surrounded by ancient-looking buildings containing exotic places to eat, hotels, and venues where one can see art, watch movies, or enjoy music. Surrounded again by gleaming new buildings of a waking metropolis. Xin Tian Di has become a great success amongst rich locals and visiting foreigners.
It's all artificial, of course. Most of the shikumen were partially torn down, their interior fully replaced while the front was left intact. The area's new diversity is strictly regulated: Restaurants, bars and cafes must have different themes, shops and kiosks are not allowed to sell the same wares. However, the low brick buildings still mark the land instead of more skyscrapers. For that, a little bit of theming seems a small price to pay.
Research is fun, indeed