In Beijing's old Legation Quarter, a stone's throw from Tiananmen Square, memories may have faded but visible reminders of a colonial past have withstood the ravages of history. Here, inside neoclassical buildings, foreign diplomats used to attend balls in all their Victorian finery, gossiping about the Empress Dowager Cixi and her court cloistered away in the Forbidden City, a short walk north of the elegant, European-style residences that constituted the foreign concession. It was in the 1790s that foreign governments first petitioned the Qing empire to let them station diplomatic representatives in the capital; in 1860, after the second opium war, the Qing relented, their hand forced by defeat, and granted eight foreign powers the right to open their embassies on a rectangle of land several blocks wide in the heart of Beijing, south of the former imperial government offices on the east side of modern-day Tiananmen Square. The Legation Quarter was born. The quarter flourished and by 1900, it had churches, chapels, hotels, banks and even a delicatessen, called Imbecks. Embassies held luncheons and dinners for princes and high officials of the court, with the popular American ambassador Major E.H. Conger and his wife leading the way. Princesses and ladies of the court were wined and dined separately since it was unacceptable for men and women to mix socially. Ambassadors sent their wives to the court of Cixi for rare meetings with the empress, and questioned them eagerly for snippets of conversation and hints on her political stance as a struggle raged between reformists and conservatives. Etiquette was paramount and only the Japanese diplomats and their wives were considered truly dignified, although Cixi, who broke with tradition by having herself photographed and her portrait painted, admired the education and independence of western women. Since those days, time and politics have humbled the once-proud quarter. Boxer rebels, the fall of empire, civil war and decades of communist isolationism and anti-foreign sentiment have all but erased this first foreign district, reducing it to a jumble of run-down state guest houses and hole-in-the-wall shops that line the ill-repaired, dusty streets around Dongjiaomin Lane and Zhengyi Road. Here and there, like a glimpse into the past, a visitor sees a church or a crumbling European-style mansion, tucked away behind a bricked-up entrance. Gone are the hulking city walls that formed the quarter's southern perimeter, torn down in the 1950s in the name of progress. Yet glamour is poised to return to the Legation Quarter next autumn, when American-Chinese lawyer and entrepreneur Handel Lee re-opens the fully renovated, 102-year-old former United States embassy as an upmarket dining, culture and shopping venue, where high society can once more dance, dine and gossip the night away. 'This is important for Beijing in establishing a new level of activity and dining; a new level of society,' says Lee, an urbane 44-year-old who has lived in the capital for 15 years. As chairman of King & Wood, China's biggest law firm, Lee stepped aside on October 1 to devote more time to his private businesses, although he remains an employee of the company. Legation Quarter, as the revamped embassy compound will be called, follows on the heels of Lee's other major development: Shanghai retail emporium Three on the Bund. Housed in the neo-renaissance, 1916-built former Union Assurance Co headquarters, Three boasts an impressive riverside position. With these and other projects, Lee is leading the way in revitalising down-at-heel but historic sites; turning them into high-end dining and shopping destinations for increasingly globalised and sophisticated mainlanders, as well as foreign residents. Investors are optimistic the Beijing project will take off. 'There's a lot of data that says the upper-end market is developing quite rapidly, faster than GDP,' says David Williams, a partner at Beijing-based Mandarin Ventures, which led the first round of investment for Legation Quarter. 'We estimate the market for fine dining and luxury retail in Beijing is half a billion US dollars annually and growing 10 per cent a year.' Williams declines to reveal the size of the investment, saying only it is 'somewhere between US$1 million and US$50 million'. The bulk of this comes from just a couple of investors, with the rest - about 18 people in all, some wealthy individuals and many foreigners - willing to put up a couple of hundred thousand US dollars to dip a toe in the Chinese market. With China's weak regulatory framework, confidence in Lee, who is known for his ease in both Chinese and western circles, is key, Williams says. 'We like the market and if we find a market segment we like, we look for a trusted entrepreneur. We really like Handel a lot.' Lee describes Legation Quarter as a 'horizontal version of Three on the Bund'. The comparison is apt. Where the Shanghai development is seven storeys high, Legation Quarter consists of five modestly proportioned neo-classical buildings, each of two storeys, grouped around three sides of a central lawn. Reflecting its ambassadorial roots, it has a decorous air, contrasting with Shanghai's ritzier business style. Built in 1903 by American architect Sid H. Nealy after Boxer rebels burned the original embassy to the ground in 1900, towards the end of their anti-foreign uprising, the buildings exude a sense of southern elegance, with columns and triangular-roofed entranceways built in the severe, grey stone typical of Beijing. Granite steps lead up to a verandah and colonnaded main entrance. 'It's kind of quirky. To me, it has a southern, antebellum flavour. And the smell - it reminds me of my grandmother's house in Washington,' muses Lee, wandering around the musty rooms of the largest house, once the residence and office of US emissaries such as Conger, who helped organise the defence of the Legation Quarter during a deadly 55-day siege by the Boxers. Hard on the old city wall, the American Legation was defended by a few marines, who faced off against 80,000 soldiers of the Righteous and Harmonious Fists, or Yihe quan, as the Boxers were known. They were tense weeks, during which thousands of foreigners lived off horse meat and frantically sewed sandbags for use in fortifying their defences. 'To our marines fell the most difficult and dangerous portion of the defence ... our legation, with the position which we held on the wall, was the key to the whole situation,' Conger noted. The siege was lifted in August 1900 with the arrival of foreign troops from Tianjin. Passed to the Foreign Ministry in the early years of the communist state, the embassy became part of the Diaoyutai guest house for dignitaries and still bears that sign over its front gate, although the modern Diaoyutai stands in the west of the city. Reportedly, it was the Dalai Lama's Beijing residence before he fled Tibet and the encroaching Red Army in 1959. As national security adviser, Henry Kissinger is said to have met premier Zhou Enlai here during the American's secret trip in July 1971 to prepare for the historic visit by former US president Richard Nixon in February 1972. Nixon's visit led to normalisation of ties between China and the US. A giant, oval table in two-toned wood, stained with white rings from many a hot tea cup, dominates the main room, soon to be converted into a haute-cuisine restaurant. 'This is probably the table where they met,' says Lee, knocking on it lightly, clearly taken with the thought. But the ugly table is to go. Throughout the building, floors are covered in garishly blue-flowered or patterned carpets that clash with unsigned, classical Chinese paintings dating from the Cultural Revolution, when artists were prohibited from signing their works. The wallpaper is similarly themed, giving the building a dark, faux-European, sombre feeling. Lee is vacillating between interior designers for the complex, torn between a pared-down visual style and a more opulent, classical French look. A set of white-painted, double steps takes the visitor to the second floor, where there are six smaller rooms. These will form private dining areas for the Jean Georges restaurant, which will occupy most of the main building. Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten already operates a restaurant in Three on the Bund. A side room will be dedicated to Nealy and a bar will be built there in the architect's honour - the only named room in the complex. Outside, on either side of a sculpted garden, four smaller houses in a similar, neo-classical, grey-stone style will house luxury shopping. Giorgio Armani is rumoured to have taken a spot, while Chanel is 'looking at it', says spokeswoman Susan Cheong-Leen Ranjard. Three other restaurants will include a pan-Chinese establishment (where 'the food will be from Shandong, Hunan, Canton - like the Whampoa Club, only younger and hipper', says Lee, referring to a restaurant in Three on the Bund). Named 8nine Palace, its selling point will be its use of organic-only ingredients, a rarity on the mainland. Another building will house a branch of Florence's highly successful Enoteca Pinchiorri, run by Annie Feolde, the first woman in 65 years to win three Michelin stars. Enoteca Pinchiorri will have a 30,000-bottle wine cellar - one-sixth the size of its Florentine stock but giant by mainland standards. Above that, a Chinese restaurant staffed by chefs from the Diaoyutai State Guest House will offer rooms for private dining. It is something of a coup to have been granted permission for staff from the prestigious establishment to work in a commercial enterprise. '[It's] the first time that is being done,' Lee says with pride. Investors are betting the restaurant's famous links - it will be called simply Diaoyutai - will attract a local clientele. For the areas between the old buildings there are plans for modern structures made of glass and marble that will house a 100-seat repertory theatre, a cafe, a gallery with art from London, New York, Cologne, Berlin and Shanghai, a bookshop with art and literature books and a patisserie - Lee is deciding between a French contender and an Austrian - and more retail space. The central lawn will be remodelled, retaining nine protected trees. Lee envisions a relaxed, outdoor experience, with punters ordering picnic hampers from Jean Georges and plenty of champagne. 'I want to do Shakespeare on the lawn; jazz, classical quintets in the evening. It should be romantic,' he says. In Beijing's sub-zero winters, he plans an outdoor skating rink; 'a bit like Rockefeller Plaza' in New York. The key task for the architect was to create more space for those retail and cultural activities. Lyndon Neri of Shanghai-based firm Neri & Hu chose glass as the main material. Transparent and accessible, he hopes it will reduce the formality of the main classical structures and encourage people to feel connected to the overall experience. The legation's chequered history posed a special challenge, especially given that politics is never far away: visible from the roof of the smaller buildings are Mao Zedong's mausoleum on Tiananmen Square, the Supreme Court building and the Museum of Revolutionary History. 'I took the time to work out the space and obviously there's a lot of history in this compound,' said Neri. 'It's very classical and not very Chinese so it's rather sensitive; will the place be considered yet another western playground?' Adding spaces in modern materials provided an opportunity to break down the apparent dominance of western culture. 'The old Legation Quarter represented and symbolises what was once the dominance of the colonial power. By occupying the in-between spaces of the site, we start to blur the classical notion of the dominant and the dominated,' says Neri. Just how Lee convinced the landlord, China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to let the premises (for an annual sum he declines to reveal) remains a mystery. 'They're not commercially driven so it's not interesting to them to rent the place. I think what caused them to agree was [the possibility] I could do something like Three on the Bund,' Lee says. After that, it was just a question of time, he says - two-and-a-half years of wining and dining, to be precise. Lee mimics a dog gnawing at a bone. 'It took a lot of lobbying and gnawing at their ankles.' Already rich in history, the construction phase at the legation may yield some surprises. Rumours have long persisted that the 20,000-year-old bones of Sinanthropus Pekinensis, or Peking Man, which were found in the 1920s in Zhoukoudian, near Beijing, and disappeared at the end of 1941 amid the chaos of war, may be buried under one of its buildings. Just in case, the Foreign Ministry has said it will mount a 24-hour survey of the site during construction. 'I hope we don't find them,' says Lee, only half joking.