Europe’s oldest Chinatown, reinvented

Written By Mark Lee
5 mins read

It’s always been a source of great pride in Liverpool that the city boasts the oldest Chinatown in Europe. It’s incredible really when you consider the great European capitals including London, Berlin and Paris, all renowned for their thriving Chinese communities. In each case, these areas are attractions, destinations that bring a mix of Chinese businesses – from exotic supermarkets appealing to the mainstream to professional services focusing on the Chinese business community to high quality restaurants with 5 star ratings that become essential stop offs on the tourist trail. It’s not always been this way.

From San Francisco to the east end of London, Chinatowns were renowned as ghettos, dimly­lit, no go areas by the docks where Chinese immigrants came off the ships, settling in some of the most unsavoury accommodation and locations. How things have changed. Chinatowns are in modern marketing parlance, transformational tourism attractions. San Francisco – with the largest Chinatown outside of Asia – was the first to spot the opportunity after the 1906 earthquake.

It's Chinatown was re­located and rebuilt, in a better location, with a more ‘Chinese’ flavour. Like its fellow seaport, Liverpool’s Chinatown has a long heritage, but of late, it has been the missing link in an incredible 15­ year journey of regeneration. We work extensively across the UK, developing place brands that are authentic, ownable and future ­facing.

The model we’ve created is very simple; history + destiny = successful place brand. In other words, ignore heritage at your peril, bring these stories to life, celebrate the past, but this can’t simply be a dusty relic, it has to involve a vision for where the place is going. What’s more, it can’t be ‘marketing’, it has to be driven by real and positive, tangible change.

At last, Liverpool’s Chinatown’s destiny has been defined. Developers North Point Global have teamed up with BLOK Architecture to create New Chinatown, an incredible £200 million visionary plan with more than 800 apartments, a premium 140 bed premium hotel, and more than 200 independent businesses over a 4.5 acre site. In the property world, the term mixed use is hackneyed and over­used.

In this example, it will change perceptions. It has the potential to make Europe’s oldest Chinatown, Europe’s finest Chinatown. It involves modern new architecture that is inspired by Shanghai, with various new buildings that become home to a variety of businesses, rooftop gardens and restaurants with views of the Liverpool Cathedral, a few metres from the largest Chinese arch outside China.

Perhaps the defining design feature is the sunken street that will host Chinese traders, restaurant, canteens, retailers, a buzz of activity designed in the style of a traditional Chinese outdoor market. There is nothing else like this in Europe. When we were invited to work with the guys at BLOK to bring this to life for the film and through the CG images, we immediately saw the potential. As a Liverpool ­based company, it’s the type of project that fills us with pride, seeing and being part of the rebirth of one of the city centre’s last few, untouched gems. BLOK took their inspiration from the dragon for the original concept and we did the same, developing a stylised, geometric dragon that became a strong and powerful identity.

Storytelling at this level, and at this stage, is important. We collaborated with local composers sneakSound and Evan Day Music to create a bespoke and atmospheric soundtrack that played an integral part in creating a visceral film, taking inspiration from traditional chinese culture whilst adding a contemporary twist and pace to pay homage to the dragon. This is a development targeting Chinese and Hong Kong investors. It has to appeal to a global audience, with investors and tourists having a clear understanding of the scale and ambition of the project.

Developments often look incredible, with awe­ inspiring design, but sometimes fail to capture the imagination, or more often than not, are lost in wave after wave of the newest, most exciting major development. To remain in people’s minds during the long period between planning approval and completion it needs a strong brand story and strategic approach to keep people interested and excited. New Chinatown has all the ingredients to generate the level of stand out needed to be a success, celebrating a proud, rich cultural heritage, with a strong identity, for a Chinatown that is being reinvented for a new generation. Keep an eye on the progress, and also this year’s Chinese New Year. It’s the beginning of something quite special.

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