Prince lends hand in Chinatown revamp

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 May, 2008, 12:00am

Britain's Prince Charles is getting involved in a revamp of London's touristy Chinatown district in a bid to make the area more 'authentically Chinese'.

The move by the heir to the throne's architectural foundation is being interpreted by some as an attempt to smooth the prince's uneasy relations with Beijing, ruffled by the likes of his high-profile support for the Dalai Lama and his description of the Chinese leadership at the Hong Kong handover as 'appalling old waxworks'.

The Prince's Foundation for the Built Environment announced this month that it was working with local authorities on a refurbishment of Chinatown. The foundation has released few details, but media reports say plans could involve adding traditional touches such as wooden arches, green glazed roof tiles and even plants native to China.

The project is the latest in a string of attempts to refurbish Chinatown, a tiny block sandwiched between Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus and Soho. The district is a mishmash of architectural styles that have accumulated since Chinese first started moving to the area in the 1970s, when it was seedy, run-down and cheap.

Westminster council, the borough in which it is located, has been trying to give the area a facelift aimed at making it another of the West End's 'must-see' tourist spots.

The foundation would not comment on Prince Charles' relations with Beijing. But it released a statement saying: 'We chose to work at Chinatown because of its educational value in demonstrating how traditional urban design principles can be applied in a diversity of neighbourhoods, towns and cities in a way that will help improve the quality of people's lives.'

The prince was invited to participate by Westminster council after he paid a visit to the area last year.

The foundation says it will consult with community representatives at a two-day workshop this week to come up with ideas. Recommendations will focus on 'traditional Chinese craftsmanship and building skills' and how they can be used.

The foundation's chief executive, Hank Dittmar, said the prince was 'particularly interested in how the design of the built environment in Chinatown has evolved and is evolving still, within the context of its London surroundings'.

On most days, Chinatown is abuzz with tourists and theatre-goers, and expatriate Chinese and other Asians. It is lined with Victorian-era buildings housing Chinese restaurants, supermarkets and traditional medicine shops.

Chinatown's main street, Gerrard Street, is pedestrianised, with red steel gates guarding each end, with a third entrance in the middle.

The Chinese restaurants that once marked their presence with garish neon signs have mostly refurbished in favour of sleek, dark, modern facades. However, stone lions guard the Loong Fung supermarket. Next door, the Lido Chinese restaurant bizarrely incorporates Greek Doric columns into its facade.

The Sunday Times newspaper reported that the plans could include elaborate wooden arches carved by Beijing craftsmen and stone dragons flanking courtyard entrances.

Other ideas included commissioning architects and masons from Beijing to make stone porticoes for shop fronts, and canopies for street corners using carved stone, wood and traditional green glazed tiles.

Robert Davis, Westminster council's cabinet member for planning, told the journal Building Design that Prince Charles, who often criticises modern architecture, does not think Chinatown is 'very original in appearance' and wanted to work with the community to make a 'more genuinely Chinese environment'.

The community's response has been cautious but welcoming.

Social rights campaigner Jabez Lam said: 'It is refreshing to see consultation with the community as the starting point, rather than at the end, of a potential development plan.'

He said the prince's foundation should not just consult local businesses but 'reach out to stakeholders that contribute to the social, cultural, welfare and wellbeing of the Chinese community in London'.