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The Four Steps to Success for the Mainland's Key Commercial Streets

While the commercial streets of many cities have withered, Harbin's Zhongyang Street remains as popular as ever.

Photo: An irresistible lure: Zhongyang Street’s unique European architecture.
An irresistible lure: Zhongyang Street's unique European architecture.
Photo: An irresistible lure: Zhongyang Street’s unique European architecture.
An irresistible lure: Zhongyang Street's unique European architecture.

Almost every mainland city has a dedicated commercial street. Many of these date back decades, having started out as just one stall or a small cluster. Over the years, many of these streets have expanded, growing into sizable commercial districts and becoming synonymous with the local business community.

Northeast China is no exception, with the phenomenon clearly in evidence in all of the region's four major cities. Tianjin Street (Dalian), Taiyuan Street (Shenyang), Guilin Road (Changchun), and Zhongyang Street (Harbin) were all once noted commercial hubs in their respective cities. Not all of them, however, have survived the passage of time. In both Dalian and Shenyang, these streets have lost much of their standing, despite local government attempts at renovation. Guilin Road, too, is struggling, now having had much of its thunder stolen by the Chongqing Road, a recent addition to Changchun's roster of commercial zones. Of them all, only Harbin's Zhongyang Street – literally "Central Street" – has retained its traditional prominence.

The continued success of Zhongyang Street, despite the many changes to the local and national economy, is seen as down to four of its key attributes:

1.  Architectural Merit

Zhongyang Street is home to some 71 European-style or faux European-style buildings, as well as 13 city-grade heritage buildings. Together, they display a range of Renaissance, Baroque, Eclectic and Modernism styles rarely seen elsewhere in China. Despite being a relatively small thoroughfare, it still effectively showcases four of the most influential styles in western architectural history, offering a glimpse of Europe's cultural development over the past 300 years. The breadth and depth of its historical architectural assemblage is said to be rarely seen elsewhere in the world.

2.  Tourist Attraction Status

In 2012, the government conferred 4A Grade Tourist Attraction status on Zhongyang Street. This has resulted in unprecedented conservation efforts and enhanced maintenance funds, and has also driven high levels of tourism traffic to the area. According to local statistics, the street boasts an average daily footfall of 800,000 during peak seasons. Taken together, this has established a solid foundation for the ongoing development of the street.

3.  Transformation

As with many other commercial areas, Zhongyang Street is home to a substantial number of long-established shops. Inevitably, it is the quality of the products and services offered by these shops that determines the long-term viability of the street. Fortunately for Zhongyang, many of its longstanding tenants – notably the Modern Hotel, the Huamei Restaurant and the Zhongyang Shopping Mall – have all moved with the times, while retaining many of their original characteristics. By consistently upgrading their offerings in line with the changing tastes and habits of contemporary consumers, they have managed to remain relevant and successful.

4.  Awards and Government Support

Following its construction in 1898, Zhongyang Street soon became synonymous with the city of Harbin. In 1986, the Harbin Municipal People's Government awarded it "heritage street" status. On 1 June 1997, it was designated as the first commercial pedestrianised street in China. In the following year, the renamed Harbin Zhongyang Dajie Pedestrian Street was recognised as a "Counterfeit-free National Model Street" as well as being highly commended in the National Youth Civilisation Unit honours. In March 2006, it was praised for its success in excluding counterfeit goods by eight government ministries and commissions, including the Central Propaganda Department and Civilisation Office.

In April of the same year, the street received a Livable Environment award from the Ministry of Construction (now the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development). It received a further endorsement in 2012 when it was accorded National 4A Grade Tourist Attraction status. Its success then led to the Heilongjiang provincial government organising the first "extended hours" promotional tours of Zhongyang Street during both the summer and winter seasons of 2014. This saw the street's opening hours extended to 10.30pm, during the summer and to 9pm during the winter. This promotion was designed to highlight the cultural appeal of Zhongyang's architecture, while also integrating Harbin's cultural tourism initiatives with the local creative industries.

Photo: Defying the decline of its rivals, Zhongyang Street remains vibrant.
Defying the decline of its rivals, Zhongyang Street remains vibrant.
Photo: Defying the decline of its rivals, Zhongyang Street remains vibrant.
Defying the decline of its rivals, Zhongyang Street remains vibrant.

Overall, the continued success of Zhongyang Street is seen as stemming from the ongoing local custodianship of its core values. While upgrades to Dalian's Tianjin Street and Shenyang's Taiyuan Street eroded their unique appeal, their Harbin counterpart has flourished by retaining its traditional appeal, while keeping in step with modern requirements.

John Yu, Dalian Office

Content provided by Picture: HKTDC Research
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