It used to be just the ducks in the windows on Gerrard Street. But now Chinese investment in London is on a whole different scale. And some of it’s threatening to annoy the purists.
‘Lots of rich Chinese see London as a safe haven for their investments,’ says Anna White, property correspondent for the Telegraph. Some of these investments could really leave a mark. For instance a Chinese-backed consortium is bidding to buy the Hyde Park Barracks, its proposals including demolition of the famous tower and construction of an underground retail complex. This is only a possibility, though. A project already under way is the conversion of the old Port of London Authority building opposite the Tower of London into luxury apartments and a hotel.
Ten Trinity Square, as it will be known, is the work of the Reignwood Group, a global Chinese concern founded in 1984 by Chanchai Ruayrungruang. Born in Shandong, Chanchai was so poor at the beginning of his career that he was forced to sell pints of his blood. He made his fortune by, among other things, introducing China to the delights of Red Bull, and grew so rich that he rewarded someone who 20 years previously had given him a bowl of rice by buying them a house. (That’s what you call a return on investment.) Reignwood’s plans for Sir Edwin Cooper’s Beaux Arts masterpiece include a Four Seasons hotel, a private members’ club and 41 fully serviced apartments. Prices start, should you be interested, from about £5 million.
All rather different from the building’s original role as the port authority headquarters when it was opened by Lloyd George in 1922, and indeed from the day in 1946 when its ballroom hosted the reception for the inaugural meeting of the United Nations. Cue the usual traditionalist cries (do we hear some emanating from St James’s Palace?) about the desecration of a much-loved London landmark, how dare these foreigners come over here knocking our buildings about, blah blah blah. The kingdom will fail, goes the old legend, if the ravens ever leave the Tower of London. Surely the consequences can’t be that much better, some will argue, if a Corinthian-columned beauty just over the road has its heart ripped out?
London’s attractiveness to Chinese investors has been heightened by the slowdown of their domestic economy. Last year the number of investor visas handed to Chinese millionaires by the UK doubled. Traditionally they’ve bought sub-£1 million buy-to-let flats in Canary Wharf and Clapham, but now not only are the purchases getting more expensive, the Chinese are choosing to live in the flats themselves. ‘We recently had a Chinese banker who bought a flat in Mayfair,’ says Becky Fatemi, managing director of the upmarket estate agent Rokstone. ‘She commutes via Bond Street to the Square Mile.’
The Chinese like Mayfair, explains Fatemi, ‘because it’s their favourite place to shop in London. They also love the hotels there, like Claridge’s and the Connaught.’ They prefer portered apartment buildings — and high ceilings are a must. ‘In Shanghai and Hong Kong they’re used to homes providing space with generous ceiling heights, so they look for the same when they come to London.’ Another trend is for rich Chinese to buy or rent a flat for their children so they can study in London. One couple completely redecorated their daughter’s City flat after a couple of years — even though she hadn’t yet lived there.
To those whose feathers are ruffled by the changes at Ten Trinity Square, the scheme’s defenders could reply: ‘No need to worry — the building is Grade II listed. Reignwood wouldn’t be allowed to bastardise it even if they wanted to. Take a look at the show apartment that has just opened: you’ll see how in keeping it is with the building’s original character. And with a hotel in there, ordinary Londoners will at last be able to see the inside of the place.’
This, however, assumes that the defenders felt like being polite. What they should actually reply is: ‘You short-sighted buffoons. Not only is it acceptable for London’s landmarks to change, it’s essential for them to change.’ The moment you handcuff a city to an unalterable blueprint of its own past is the moment that city begins to die. Lots of people have opposed the Square Mile’s new skyscrapers on the grounds that they ‘ruin’ the view from the Tower of London. They’d do well to remember that that is indeed its name: the Tower of London. There is no London of the Tower. The fortress owes its existence to the city, not the other way round.
Talking of which — the Tower is a reminder that this sacred England, mercifully free of the villainous influence of pesky foreigners, never existed in the first place. The very stone from which it’s constructed is French, shipped over by William of Normandy after his successful invasion of 1066. Throughout its history London has been built and rebuilt by foreigners, all the way from the Romans (some of whose houses and roads have been uncovered by the current excavations at Ten Trinity Square) to the current influx of Russians and Chinese. And at every turn there were complaints. Just look at the 1970s, when the discovery of North Sea oil prompted Fletcher in Porridge to observe: ‘Now we can tell the Arabs to stuff it, and can we please buy London back?’
London has always been a city of outsiders — the Chinese are just the latest to arrive. And if they rearrange the scenery a little, that’s all to the good.