Hongkou B&B plan sounds good, but execution is key
By Doug Young
HUANGPU District has the stately Bund, Jing'an has the upscale Nanjing Road W. shopping area and Luwan has the trendy Xintiandi. And then there's Hongkou, which is trying to find its way onto city tourist maps with new plans for an area of bed and breakfast-style (B&B) hotels converted from old shikumen (stone-gated) houses.
If my description of this newest plan by Hongkou District sounds just slightly sarcastic, it's because I've become a tad skeptical of the growing list of efforts by local officials to build some truly first-class attractions for both local people and out-of-town visitors. Among the four major districts of old Shanghai, only Hongkou has largely failed to convert some of its rich history into modern major attractions that showcase its past as the former Japanese concession and home to a large Russian emigrant population.
I'll admit that part of the reason for my lament is that I live in Hongkou, and would desperately like to see the emergence of hip and trendy areas that can capitalize on its many old and interesting buildings and areas. I do credit the district with trying to create such attractions, as with the B&B plan.
On the surface, at least, this new plan looks quite interesting and fills a very real need for affordable, well-managed hotels for visitors. Under the plan, Hongkou district officials will work with locals in an area near the Hailun Road Metro Station to convert their traditional shikumen-style homes into affordable B&Bs.
That particular area is near where I live, and I can personally attest to the fact that it's full of such old-style houses, many of which are being gradually upgraded in a plan to resuscitate the broader area. To ensure uniformity of service, the plan would see a unified management body created for the new B&B area, to assist local homeowners in providing the kind of environment and service that would appeal to travelers looking for more personal and affordable accommodations .
The plan looks relatively well conceived and could stand a chance of success as it's gradually rolled out over the next few years. But my major concern is that Hongkou could once again bungle this initiative with poor execution and promotion, as happened with similar plans in the past.
One of the district's great assets is the North Bund, consisting of the area along the Huangpu River north of Nanjing Road. While people call the Bund one of Shanghai's most historic and best-preserved tourist attractions, they really refer to the part of the Bund that lies south of Nanjing Road.
While there are plenty of interesting and well-restored buildings on the north side of the Bund, tourists and even locals like myself will almost inevitably turn right when they reach the end of Nanjing Road to see buildings like the old Hong Kong Shanghai Bank headquarters and dine at trendy restaurants like M on the Bund. By comparison, few people turn left, and I personally can't even name a single building in that Hongkou part of the Bund.
Other areas of Hongkou with big potential include the Liyang Road area and Duolun Road, both containing numerous historic buildings that were home to some leading intellectuals of the early 20th century. The most famous was Lu Xun, known for his critical short stories, whose home has been converted into a small museum.
And yet on a recent trip to Lu's famous former residence, my out-of-town friend and I were the only tourists there. The case is similar on Duolun Road, which has been converted into a much larger version of Xintiandi but fails to attract the same volume of tourists and locals looking for fun places to eat and shop. My favorite of Hongkou's under-visited attractions is 1933 Old Millfun, formerly the biggest slaughterhouse in Asia, which has been converted into a series of trendy cafes, restaurants and offices.
A friend of mine in the municipal government informs me that Hongkou officials lack the same marketing savvy of their peers in Huangpu and Jing'an, which may explain why the district has yet to win any major spots on the city's tourist maps.
I probably will get some criticism for saying this, but I might suggest the district work more closely with foreign consultants and developers like the ones who developed Xintiandi and many of the most popular malls and restaurants on Nanjing Road and the Bund. They may not be Shanghai natives, but they certainly understand how to transform old areas and architecture into destinations that win praise from preservationists and history buffs, while also providing a fun and comfortable respite for local residents and out-of-town visitors.