Shanghai Street View: Honing Hospitality

Pudong canal town rolls out welcome mat

I had a sense of deja vu on reading about a plan to develop a scenic river town near our new Disney Resort into a bed and breakfast (B&B) district as a way to raise local living standards while providing some alternate housing options for park visitors. Then I remembered writing a few years ago about a similar plan to transform an aging but colorful area of Hongkou District near my home into a similar B&B hotspot.

These kinds of plans are great in theory, as they raise living standards by helping local residents to upgrade their aging homes into thriving businesses. Such plans also help to restore old architecture and can create unique communities with their own individual personalities, like the bustling Taizifang area.
The only problem is that strong government support is critical to making these programs work. That often includes huge amounts of education for local residents, who have little or no idea about hospitality and need to be taught even the simplest things like how to respect a guest’s privacy and make sure a B&B employee is available at all times to deal with customers’ needs.

Such programs also require financial support, since many residents whose homes are being converted lack the funds for simple but important things like buying modern fixtures, installing air conditioning and hot water systems and reinforcing creaky wooden floors and walls so visitors won’t hear everything happening in the rooms surrounding theirs.

The latest B&B brainstorm is coming from the folks in Pudong, specifically from a little waterside village called Lianmin, about 5 kilometers away from the new Disney Resort. Shanghai has mapped out a plan to redevelop about 50 houses in the village into “exquisitely designed villas”, according to the reports, evoking exotic images that look nothing like what’s there now.

Work is set to begin almost immediately on the project, as planners are hoping the villas can start accepting new guests by next May.

Professional Management

This particular plan looks slightly different from the one that was supposed to transform the colorful but ramshackle neighborhood near my home in Hongkou. That’s because the Hongkou plan was relying on residents to do most of the work with support from the local government. By comparison, this latest plan will apparently see professionals do most of the work directly after renting an initial 50 homes from their current inhabitants.

I was quite hopeful on reading about the Hongkou plan back in 2013, as it really seemed to have the potential to transform the slowly gentrifying neighborhood around the 1933 Old Millfun, a former slaughterhouse that has been reinvented as a trendy complex of shops and creative office space. But I was also just a tad skeptical due to some of the factors I’ve mentioned above, and also Hongkou’s spotty record for executing such projects.

Fast forward to the present, when that particular area continues its slow gentrification, but without any notable addition of B&Bs. Instead, the wrecking ball seems to be far more active in that particular neighborhood, where rows of aging houses have been demolished in the last few months as part of a major redevelopment that will include a widening of the road leading into the Xinjian Lu Tunnel connecting Hongkou and Lujiazui.

Then again, it’s always much easier to demolish and build from scratch than to restore old buildings that often require lots more work.

That’s not to say that these B&B projects, and similar targeted community overhauls, aren’t possible. One of the best cases I’ve seen is the newest area of the water town of Wuzhen, about a 2 hour drive from Shanghai. I stayed in one of the many family-run B&Bs in the town during a trip there 2 years ago, and was extremely impressed by the attention to detail, including good air conditioning, hot water showers and extremely comfortable beds, all in a converted second-story room of an old residence.

In addition to the nice surroundings, the host, a local woman, had obviously been given some training in hospitality and served up a very nice breakfast that was included with the room. Visitors to Taiwan will also know that the island has elevated the operation of B&Bs to an art form. That means visitors now have access to all sorts of fun and unusual accommodations when traveling, and I seldom stay at hotels anywhere on the island now except for Taipei.

All of that brings us back to this particular Disney-adjacent B&B plan, which looks like it could fare better than the Hongkou project since it appears to be run by professionals. But the hybrid plan in Wuzhen looks like a better template to me, even though it probably requires a bit of time and effort. Such an approach not only generates new economic activity, but adds color and a more genuine feel to the area, while providing residents with new skills and opportunities to improve their lives.

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