Since the days of the Ming Dynasty, Wangfujing has been home to royal family members. During the Qing, the Manchu offered residences there to crown princes and elder statesmen, making the Beijing street a prominent address. Helping the area’s cachet: at the south end of the street sat a well that delivered water ‘so sweet that it would make rice fragrant and turn laundry white’. That’s why the street was given the name Wang Fu, which means ‘noble residency’, with jing denoting ‘well’.
By the early twentieth century, Empress Cixi had opened the street to merchants too. Only a stone’s throw from the Forbidden Palace, it soon attracted traders. Wealthy locals liked Wangfujing too, as the only district in the capital to provide services like dry cleaning, hair salons and pharmacies. Later it housed some of the most fashionable department stores and shops that sold Western products. Wangfujing became the thriving commercial centre of the capital.
In more recent decades – as Beijing’s population grew – the city began to stretch outwards, giving rise to newer and trendier shopping districts such as Sanlitun and Finance Street. The lack of new development in the Wangfujing area, meant younger shoppers wrote it off as old and rundown. Tourists were more likely to visit. “Wangfujing has always been a historical attraction, which is different from all the other commercial areas in Beijing. However, because commercial development started early, the format has become old and dated. Many businesses still remain in the traditional department store stage. Even the small shops sell traditional hardware (like slip-on shoes and silk), which are lost on local shoppers,” a local developer complained to Jiemian, a news portal.
What else puts off the locals? It’s inconvenient to get there as much of the area is off-limits to cars and public transport. “All in all, those who live in Beijing stay far away from Wangfujing. It is a place to cheat the tourists,” an online commentator advises.
Hongkong Land is determined to change that perception. Last month the biggest landlord in Hong Kong’s expensive Central district unveiled WF Central, a 150,000 square metre retail, hospitality and lifestyle hub in Wangfujing. The project has cost $1.1 billion and taken more than a decade to finish, according to Winshang Net, a news portal.
“From planning to finish, the project has taken 13 years,” Raymond Chow, executive director of Hongkong Land, admitted. “Our goal is to re-attract local consumers in Beijing to Wangfujing and revitalise the Wangfujing shopping district.”
The upscale retail space will feature luxury brands like Vacheron Constantin, Gucci and Prada. Five-star hotel Mandarin Oriental – which, like Hongkong Land, is part of Jardine Matheson – is scheduled to open next year. And Victoria’s Secret will open its second flagship store there (the first flagship is in Shanghai). Danish jewellery maker Pandora and US casual dining giant Cheesecake Factory are also on the list of tenants in the upscale retail development.
Hongkong Land has high hopes for WF Central as the company’s first large-scale shopping centre in Beijing (it operates major shopping malls in Shanghai, Chengdu and Chongqing). Sector analysts say the Singapore-listed developer plans more malls in China in the years ahead, too, having purchased over Rmb33 billion ($5 billion) of land just this year, largely in second- and third-tier cities.
Hongkong Land isn’t the only party keen to revive Wangfujing’s fortunes. Wangfujing Department Store, the oldest tenant on the street (it opened in 1955), is even embracing new technology by implementing an O2O strategy to attract shoppers to the store. Meanwhile, In88, a mall in Wangfujing owned by Intime, is converting some of its floors to offices to increase foot traffic.
Industry observers say more still needs to be done to bring Wangfujing back to life. “In addition to enhancing the whole shopping experience, there needs to be more entertainment activities and better organisation to improve the flow of foot traffic. Local transportation, too, needs to be adjusted,” commercial property consultancy RET told Jiemian.
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