Chinese cities and colonial heritage preservation

Colonial villa in Shanghai, Goulard Sébastien

All Chinese cities do not preserve their architectural heritage in the same way. Many Chinese coastal cities were under Western influence, with the Unequal Treaties, from the second half of the 19th century to the end of WW2. The foreign presence was reflected in the introduction of Western architecture. Europeans imported their way of life into the legations and concessions, including their own style of buildings.  These buildings were erected to symbolize the power of their nation or company, as illustrated on Shanghai’s Bund. Europeans also built villas to re-create a familiar environment. Many of these buildings were destroyed during the war against Japan, others disappeared with the Cultural Revolution, but the major threat to their longevity has been the massive urbanisation and land development of the last twenty years.

These buildings, usually in prime locations, have been easy prey for land developers who wish to modernize and densify city centres. Local urban planners have also chosen to “erase” the symbols of foreign domination and create new landmarks of China’s new prosperity. However local authorities have been gradually paying more attention to this heritage and its possible impact on tourism and city promotion.  

In an article published in 2007, Raymond Wong (CUHK) studied the preservation of colonial heritage in three Chinese cities: Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong1

  • In Shanghai, several hundred building have been put under protection since 1989. Priority was given to outstanding buildings with historical value. However, traditional residential units had to give way to modern construction programmes.  Despite these transformations, Wong feels that Shanghai has managed to preserve a very wealthy architectural heritage.
  • From a historical point of view, Guangzhou was the main gate for foreign traders in China. This role is reflected in her local architecture. In the 19th century, both the French and the British population increased in Guangzhou and they erected buildings in the inner city. Guangzhou was also an emigration centre, and when the Cantonese came back home, many of them adopted both Chinese and Western architectural styles for their homes.This heritage faced serious threats with the implementation of economic reforms in Guangdong in the 1980s. Many traditional residential units were removed or redeveloped.Since 1998, the local government has developed new plans to preserve historical legacies, but unlike in Shanghai, heritage preservation policies in Guangzhou have not been effective.
  • The case of Hong Kong is different, because of two particularities. First, Hong Kong was a British colony until 1997, and because of her political stability and economic prosperity, the city attracted many immigrants. Secondly, Hong Kong is a very small territory and Hong Kong Island, where the British first settled, has a very “hilly” environment. Because of land scarcity, most of the original colonial buildings have been replaced. The few remaining ones are mainly administrative buildings.

In Hong Kong, local administrations did not have the right to prevent land developers from removing old private buildings. Preservation was mainly the result of public pressure and grassroots organisations protesting against land development programmes.

Wong lists some issues that prevent Chinese cities from preserving their architectural heritage. Because of rapid economic growth and the improvement of infrastructures, many historical buildings have to make room for new buildings. According to the author, there is no single remedy for this. Cities will learn to preserve their heritage only through time and experience. However, it could be argued that this problem needs to be addressed quickly before the heritage of Chinese cities disappears. It is obvious that every historical legacy cannot be preserved; otherwise a city will become static and take on the aspect of a museum. So, two main questions arise: which building should be preserved and who should decide on this subject?  When we look at Hong Kong, we can see that market forces alone are not effective for the preservation of historic buildings. Locals, historians and urban planners should all work together to preserve this part of their heritage. Inhabitants should be involved in the decision-making process, since what they may want to preserve may not have any “architectural value”, but still represents the soul of their district, and so strengthens their city’s identity. 

  1. Wong R. (2007), Preservation of Traditional Buildings with Heritage Value in Asian Cities with Colonial Background – Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong Cases, Housing Science, no.4, vol. 31, http://personal.cityu.edu.hk/~bswmwong/pp/historic_bldg.pdf []

Sebastien Goulard

Ph.D. in political science (EHESS, Paris); M.A. in social sciences (EHESS, Paris); M.A. in international relations (IRIS, Paris), B.A. (Hons) in international political studies (ESE - Nottingham Trent University)

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