China has 5,000 years of history, but visitors to most Chinese cities would never know it. When faced with an old building, the default reaction of mainland urban planners has long been to knock it down. The result: hundreds of identical, faceless gray cities, where history has been razed to make way for skyscrapers.

But now, some Chinese cities seem ready to move beyond their 30-year love affair with modernity. Even Shanghai, symbol of all that is most futuristic about China, is starting to reminisce about its past as a city of narrow lanes and gossip, communal card games and rich smells.

Vast swaths of that old city were summarily knocked down in the $45 billion spruce-up that preceded the 2010 Shanghai World Expo. But now the city fathers are determined to use what is left more wisely, preserving not only those buildings notable for their role in Communist Party or colonial history, but also the very fabric of city life, from old docks to disused factories to crumbling neighborhoods.

“It’s not like in the past, when we just cried ‘chai’ without thinking about it,” said Tan Yufeng, deputy chief engineer of the Shanghai Municipal Administration of Cultural Heritage, referring to the much-hated Chinese word for “raze,” scrawled on urban homes before a demolition that could not be challenged. “At first, preservation was subordinated to development, then they were seen as equal, and now preservation is seen as the premise of development.”

This new attitude — that old buildings have value, too — manifests itself in projects from the ostentatiously commercial to the modestly residential. At the new $3.2 billion Dream Center theme park on the west bank of Shanghai’s Huangpu River, being built by the government and DreamWorks, an old cement factory will be turned into a research and development center for cartoon animation and film production, while disused oil tanks will become theaters, and old port cranes, railways and anchor piles have been incorporated into a new park.

Elsewhere along the river, old docks, ferry ports and warehouses are being turned into “innovation hubs” for architects, artists and other cultural enterprises — complete with bars and restaurants to fuel all that creativity. And behind the Bund, heart of colonial Shanghai, is a symbol of an ever-newer attitude to historic preservation: the Waitanyuan neighborhood, where Shanghai has chosen to preserve not just famous historic buildings, but anonymous local residences as well.

“They used to just pick the most iconic building [and preserve that], but now they realize the urban fabric also has historic value,” said Ben Wood, architect of Shanghai’s first major historic preservation project, Xintiandi, now a tourist and entertainment mecca with its trendy bars, restaurants and shops.

“They have moved to a more sophisticated assessment of historic artifacts,” Wood said, noting that when Xintiandi was being planned over a decade ago, “no one thought these buildings had any value whatsoever, they wanted to tear them all down.”

In fact, tearing down old buildings has a long pedigree in the Middle Kingdom. “China is different from Europe in terms of the way it looks at old buildings,” said Ruan Yisan, one of China’s foremost experts on historic preservation and a professor of urban planning at Shanghai’s Tongji University. “Throughout history, whenever a new dynasty replaced an old one, everything built by the former dynasty would be destroyed and replaced by new buildings.”

Some Chinese cities are still doing things that way, but with a new twist: tearing down old buildings and rebuilding them in an antique style.

“There is a push to recreate fake historic architecture in China,” said Wood, whose Xintiandi development has been criticized for inauthenticity. “It’s like Disney World,” he said, adding, “If they are going to make theme parks, then say it’s a theme park.”

The difference between the two approaches is obvious in two Shanghai developments on either end of the French Concession road: the Jianyeli neighborhood, where historic “shikumen” houses have been knocked down to be rebuilt as an upscale housing development that bears only the most superficial resemblance to the original; and the Bugaoli neighborhood, where the government installed toilets and kitchens but left the homes otherwise untouched.

After four decades living in Bugaoli, 81-year-old Yu, who gave only his surname, says he does not want to see Bugaoli knocked down, even to build comfortable modern accommodation.

“Here we offer a hand to each other if anything happens — you just cry out, and people will come to help you,” he said, saying that would never happen in a high-rise.

Residents like Yu are delighted that chai is no longer the only word in Shanghai’s urban planning vocabulary. After 30 years of chasing modernity at any cost, Shanghai has begun to count the value — and not just the cost — of preservation.

— Financial Times

Yan Zhang contributed to this report.