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Plan for shikumen guesthouses on hold
By Zhang Qian

APPRECIATE art exhibitions nearby, go for a little shopping, get a drink at the bar, and then go directly upstairs for some rest.

Having a 24-hour tour in a traditional Shanghai-style community might be an ideal travel plan for some tourists.

But the plan of shifting some of the dwelling apartments into guesthouses was recently suspended at Tianzifang, one of the most popular “creative park” areas in Shanghai featuring old shikumen (stone house) architecture.

A major reason for the suspension is that some dwellers in the creative park refuse to run guesthouses, but an official says the plan is not completely dead.

Tianzifang, on Taikang Road, was one of the city’s old common shikumen communities. It was transformed into a creative park in 1998, with well-known artists like Chen Yifei, Deke Erh and Wang Jiajun as the first group of settlers.

Creative shops, art galleries, photography salons, coffee shops and bars have gradually filled the creative park, while there are still original residents living in the community.

While the number of residents renting their apartments out is increasing, there are still about one-third of the apartments left, says Zhen Rongfa, an official of the Dapuaiao Community. Most of the leftovers are on the second or third floor and are too small and poorly located for opening shops.

A plan to transform these apartments into guesthouses was raised last year to meet increasing accommodation needs while improving facilities like aging wires and helping owners rent the apartments.

After studying mature guesthouse projects in nearby towns like Zhujiajiao in Qingpu District and Xitang in Zhejiang Province, the experts group was more inclined to the model in Wuzhen of Zhejiang.

According to the plan, a particular management company would rent the apartments from the residents and take charge of repairs, maintenance and general management. A general reception desk would be set up to provide registration, and the residents would be hired as staff, providing services to the guests.

The plan also includes services like providing butlers that help introduce the history and life in shikumen and teaching guests how to make local snacks.

However the plan is on hold for now. Most of the remaining residents are middle-aged or elderly and don’t want to help run the operation, instead desiring to simply collect their rents, says an official.

As one of the most popular tourist sites and leisure centers, the rents for stores at Tianzifang have increased sharply in recent years. A scarf shop owner told Shanghai Daily that what were once low-cost shops costing only 3,000 to 4,000 yuan (US$640) in rent each month now cost about 30,000 to 50,000 yuan. An individual painter spent 120,000 yuan a month on renting a 30-square-meter studio.

Though the plan to transform homes into guesthouses has stopped for now, it will remain a “reference plan,” according to the officials.

The shikumen houses at Tianzifang are quite suitable as guesthouses, according to Zhang Xuemin, president of the Shanghai Shikumen Culture Research Society. The houses were for dwellings in the first place, while the growing commercial and cultural nature of the area has brought more tourists to the community.

But Zhang suggests that the shikumen houses are the most valuable part of the community. The transformation should be guided by the idea of keeping and inheriting the shikumen culture, rather than simply making money, he says. Keeping the original appearance of the architecture should be a priority in the transformation.

“There are various possible ways to protect and use the shikumen culture. But the key lies in which is the most suitable one,” says Zhang.

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