If you build it, they will come. From art galleries to food, design and accommodation hubs, new spaces in Asia are proving they have the power to draw a flash mob.

Shanghai: 1933

What is it?
It was New York that first transformed its meatpacking district into a style hub, and now Shanghai has been applying finishing touches to its own former slaughterhouse locale.

Together the dramatic Art Deco building and neighbouring powerhouse in the city’s Hongkou area were once the third largest abattoir in the world. Now, renamed 1933, the complex is undergoing a $12 million facelift by Paul Liu’s Axons Concepts, the developer responsible Shanghai’s glitzy waterfront development, Three on the Bund. When completed, 1933, at extraordinary 32,500-square-metre property, will be the centre of cutting-edge design and art in Shanghai, offering not just retail outlets and exhibition areas but space to nurture innovation, a relatively new concept to communist China.

“We want to break the mould of traditional “shopping mall”-style public spaces, instead fashioning 1933 around lifestyle, learning and creativity,” says David Laris, the Sydney-born creative adviser for the complex, explaining that he has already refused to let retail space to brands deemed unsuited to the concept.

“We won’t house the usual suspects” says Laris, with shoppers more likely to encounter brands such as American Apparel and Dutch menswear Cold Method. Designer Andy Hall has changed little of 1933’s original main building, characterised by its geometric motif windows. A spectacular five-storey rabbit warren of low-ceilinged rooms clustered around a dome glass atrium that is connected by sweeps of curvaceous interlocking ramps, spiral staircases and flyovers, many still boasting the cattle grids from their former life. The dome theatre is, however, 1933’s showpiece.

Accessible via an elevator big enough to carry a car (Ferrari recently held the China launch of its 430 Scuderia sports car there), the theatre’s views plunge through to the basement via glass strong enough to withstand four tonnes. Visitors will be able to stand and observe the discussions, lectures and “floating exhibitions” on the below three storeys (together known as the COR). Then, the former Jewish ghetto of Hongkou, renowned for its writers and revolutionaries, will be the avant-garde hot-spot once again.

29 Sha Jing Road, Hongkou; +86 2165011933; www.1933-shanghai.com

What to do?
Visit China Best which showcases innovative product launches from young home-grown designers; attend a poetry reading, book launch or workshop (on subjects such as food, wine and music); shop for designer ware at shops like Asianera and Safilo; eat at Laris’ 1930s- inspired steak house or Jade Garden for fine dining Chinese.

Don’t miss
The podcast room retelling stories about old Shanghai; whimsical bovine and slaughterhouse accessories scattered throughout the complex – computer-morphed cow bone furniture, light fixtures and artwork hanging from chain tracks (used to hang animal carcasses) and perhaps rather chillingly, the blood-red basement floor.

Where to stay
The 55-room JIA (931 West Nanjing Road; +86 2162179000; www.jiashanghai.com; doubles from $200) on vibrant West Nanjing Road perfectly matches cool with practical. Sumptuously designed, the hotel is both sleek and traveler-friendly, with mini kitchens, a la its Hong Kong counterpart, free internet and a washing machine and dryer for guest use. Bar perks – complimentary wine in the evenings, all day coffee and cake – promote a happy, social vibe.

T+L Tip
Ask your concierge to write 1933’s address down in Mandarin as few Shanghai taxi drivers speak English or know the area.

Beijing: Ullens Center for Contemporary Art

What is it?
In the mid-1980s, post-Cultural Revolution, a trickle of information from the outside world started igniting the imaginations of Chinese artists. Exploring both the consumer culture of the West and the constraints of communism they sparked a movement, which now, 20 years on, is captivating the art world and being showcased in galleries from New York to New Delhi.

Former Belgian businessman, Guy Ullens, started collecting contemporary Chinese art, buying direct and eventually amassing more than 1500 pieces. Hoping to now give something back, Ullens and his wife, Myriam, recently sold their collection of Turner landscapes to open the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing. China’s first privately-run non-profit gallery, UCCA’s aim is to provide a platform for non-commercial artists to develop their talents. “We want to give artists space to evolve without pressure, nourishing their emergence into the art scene”, says Elisa Cousseran, UCCA’s communications director, explaining that Chinese art has become so profitable, galleries have been pulling students out of college and immediately placing their work on the market.

Housed in Beijing’s bohemian Dashanzi Art District (otherwise known as “798”), a former munitions complex, the 8000-square-metre UCCA was transformed by architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte. Stark white, but maintaining an even ambience regardless of the weather outside thanks to light-diffusing blinds, the space – peppered with original factory fixtures – includes two big halls, a black box, white cube, auditorium, library and cafe, all filled with six-month rotating artists.

Although not completely finished (a restaurant is due to open later this year), UCCA welcomed more than 80,000 visitors in the first six months after its November 2007 opening. The figures may reflect a growing receptiveness to Chinese art and expression, but the openness enjoyed in Western countries remains elusive: authorities recently forced several galleries at 798 to remove paintings that dealt with political themes.

No. 4 Jiuxianqiao Road, 798 Arts District; +86 1084599269; www.ucca.org.cn; open Tues-Sun 10am – 7pm, $5 entry fee, free on Thursdays.

What to do?
Visit Our Future: The Guy and Myriam Ullens Foundation Collection, an exhibition drawn from the Ullens collection of contemporary Chinese art charting the movement’s evolution over the past 20 years. The exhibition, on display until October 12, includes many rarely seen pieces from political pop artist Wang Guangyi and Communist Revolution-inspired works by Zhang Xiaogang. Check the UCCA website for details of future exhibitions.

Don’t miss
Grab a free map from UCCA and wander through Dashanzi Art District’s abundance of galleries. Notables include: Galleria Continua (+86 1064361005; www.galleriacontinua.com), Paris-Beijing Photo Gallery (+86 1084599263; www.parisbeijingphotogallery.com), Gallery TN (+86 1084599550; www.gallerytn.com) and New Age Art Gallery (+86 1084599282; www.newageartgallery.com).

Where to stay?
Recently opening in one of Beijing’s rapidly diminishing hutongs (old villages) is the newly built (but in traditional style) Hotel Cote Cour SL (+86 1065128020; www.hotelcotecoursl.com; doubles from $200). This charming addition to the city’s booming lodging scene has just 14 rooms (dashing in red and lime green), nestled around a spacious lantern-lit courtyard, a rooftop terrace and art- and antique-filled bar.

T+L Tip
Set aside a full day to explore 798 home to more than 140 galleries, shops and museums. Stop by Timezone 8 (No. 4 Jiuxianqiao Road; +86 1084599332; www.timezone8.com; lunch for two $30) for good salads, Asian-inspired focaccia and wine.

This article appeared in a November 2008 issue of Travel + Leisure Australia. The article also included pieces on Cheonggyecheon Stream in Seoul by Anthony Dennis and Tokyo Midtown by Stephanie Wood.