Circulations of visitors and new identity: the case of the former concessions of Wuhan

Xinyu Li (Université Paris 1: Panthéon-Sorbonne, Complutense University of Madrid)

The preservation and protection of historical heritage in China have been going on since the 1980s. In 1982, several measures for identifying and protecting heritage at the national level were established. In 1985, China joined the World Heritage Convention. According to the 2019 report of the National Cultural Heritage Bureau of China, more than 4 thousand monuments were protected at the national level in China.

Compared with the traditional historic districts, there is a type of heritage with some peculiarities in China, i.e., the former concessions. Different from colonies, the sovereignty of the concession areas remained with China. However, the economy and administration of these places were under the control of the occupying countries. These districts were enclaves outside Chinese jurisdiction. Under the influence of communist ideology, they were considered a colonial symbol for about 30 years before the Chinese economic reform in 1978. Thus, this type of heritage built by a large state is, in a sense, dissonant (Tunbridge, Ashworth, 1996).

Since the beginning of the 21st century, the potential value for tourism and substantial commercial returns of this heritage category has been discovered (He & Wu, 2005). The unique cultural landscape of the concession districts offers an “exotic” image different from the general urban view in China. Under this background, cities with concession areas started projects to preserve and develop these heritages. For example, in 2002, the Xintiandi renovation project was completed in Shanghai. The former Italian Concession was requalified as New I-Style Town in Tianjin in 2009 (Lu, 2017). A renovation project of a street museum on Li Huangpi Road in Wuhan was launched in 2014 (Cheng, Yu, Li, 2017). The city governments often guide these projects. They often choose to put heritage preservation and touristification together. In this process, there is a significant population movement. Therefore, what is the result of the population movement of these projects?

Li Huangpi Road area after the renovation
Photo by Xinyu LI 2020

Li Huangpi Road (known as Yima Street) is the main street of the former Russian Concession, close to the former French Concession. The road is about 600 meters long and contains almost all the elements that make up a city: administrative buildings, residential buildings, police stations, business buildings, hostels, banks, schools, the hospitals, most built between 1910-1927 by the German architect Richard Sachse. In the first half and middle of the 20th century, most residents were local Chinese. It was not until the 1980s, with the economic and urban development, that large numbers of suburban and rural populations moved into the area, searching for jobs and renting these apartments. According to the surveys, most residents in this area are low-income and have a very high percentage of mobility. Many apartments are divided by plaster walls into small, temporary rooms for rent (Cheng, Yu, Li, 2017).

In 2000, a street museum was set up in the area to preserve and display the neighborhood’s architecture and culture. The facades of these buildings were replaced with old red bricks. Some presentation boards were set up to introduce the history of the neighborhood and the buildings. At the same time, several street committees were established with the government’s support. These committees organize activities and events to encourage residents to participate in preserving and promoting the local culture. The collective memory and cultural activities are combined with the daily life of the community residents.

The establishment of the “street museum” has made this area a public cultural space. The unique history and Western-style urban landscape attracted small companies and restaurants. After becoming a street museum, this area gradually gained many cultural and fashion facilities, such as photography studios, art salons, galleries, cafes, and bars. Some freelance artists and craftspeople rented vacant rooms to use as their offices. The combination of Western heritage with café-restaurants and art studios brought new mobility and dynamism to the neighborhood and created an image of an exotic western cityscape (Qiu & Liu, 2019). These images have attracted residents, and tourists from other cities to visit the area. This mobility has enhanced the visibility of this area. So, it gradually transformed from a traditional residential area to a multifunctional, commercial, cultural, and tourist area.

However, the completion of the renovation project and the mobility of artists and tourists have led to an increase in local consumption levels and the price of living. Lots of original residents could not afford these costs, so they moved to other areas of the city with lower spending levels. The vacant rooms are then used as restaurants or studios. This has led to the further cost of living increases and the departure of the original residents.

Today, Li Huangpi Road became a well-known tourist site, because of the Western-style buildings and various bars and restaurants (Chen & Xu, 2021). In this area, we could no longer see the elderly and low-income residents, but it is filled with a large number of young people. The road has become a great place to take photos, which are great to post on social media. It became equally a place to meet friends and have parties.

The departure of the original residents and the circulation of tourists hide or dilute the collective memory. The heritage with once colonial history has been given a new narrative and identity, becoming a public space for tourism, commerce, and entertainment. Both public and private actors are involved in their own way in the preservation and reuse of these architectural heritages. The building facades were preserved and restored as a material heritage, becoming a landmark symbol in the city.

Xinyu Li is an architect and Ph.D. Candidate in planning at the University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, and geography at the Complutense University of Madrid. His research focuses on the heritization, touristification, and physical-social transformation of historical areas, with a specific interest in historical towns and Western-themed spaces in former concessions in China.


Chen, E., & Xu, H. (2021, June). Research on the protection and utilization of historical and cultural blocks under the New Museum Theory——Taking the Street Museum of Lihuangpi Road in Wuhan as an example. In IOP Conference Series: Earth and Environmental Science 787(1). IOP Publishing.

Cheng, S., Yu, Y., & Li, K. (2017). Historic conservation in rapid urbanization: a case study of the Hankow historic concession area. Journal of urban Design, 22(4), 433-454.

He, S., & Wu, F. (2005). Property-led redevelopment in post-reform China: A case study of Xintiandi redevelopment project in Shanghai. Journal of Urban Affairs, 27(1), 1-23.

Lu, Y. (2017). De l’ancienne concession italienne de Tianjin à l’I-Style Town : enjeux et processus de la patrimonialisation et du développement touristique. Ph.D. thesis, University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, France.

Qiu, J., & Liu, Z. (2019). The Charm of Slow Thinking—Taking the Street Museum on the Lihuangpi Road of Wuhan as an Example. In 3rd International Conference on Art Studies: Science, Experience, Education (ICASSEE 2019) (pp. 269-276). Atlantis Press.

Tunbridge, J. E., & Ashworth, G. J. (1996). Dissonant Heritage: The Management of the Past as a Resource in Conflict. Chichester: Wiley.

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