The first time I heard about ‘TianZifang’ was last week when my journalist friend asked me in sheer surprise when I was hoping to while away the afternoon. ‘Oh you have never been to Tianzifang?!’, ‘Why?, you are a Laowei, you must go and see it!’. She said. ‘Tian Zi Fang?’ I asked. ‘I’ve heard about Xiantiandi, Moganshan Lu, and Shikumen, but where’s Tianzifang?’. Therefore, I went to explore further. Yes, rather embarrassing as it may be that as a travel writer I have not been here before. However, never too late to explore as they say.
One of Shanghai’s latest tourist destinations was largely unknown until around 2006, and is neatly tucked away in the city’s famed French Concession area. With the 2010 Shanghai Expo site only around a 20 minutes’ walk away, the historical Tianzifang is an area full of significant modern Chinese and Western arts and crafts.
The best way to get to this popular tourist attraction is by taking metro line 9 to Dapu Bridge and then walking across the street to Taikang Road (known as Taikang Lu in Chinese). While there are slight similarities to places such as the Shikumen or Xintiandi in terms of architecture, this destination is more for the tourist. You are more than likely to bump into someone with a Canon or Nikon as opposed to a bunch of Shanghai yuppies having business lunch. The right way to describe is that it’s a wonderful carnival of art, design and architecture. However, at the same time its less eccentric and classy than, say, Moganshan Lu.
Originally built in the 1930s as a Shikumen residential district, Tianzifang remained very hidden to the outside world, and was not a touristy attraction until about 2006 when it was slated for demolition to make way for redevelopment in time for the 2010 Shanghai Expo.
Many Chinese artists, café owners, and boutique French bistros owners settled in the area around 2006, and eventually in time the place has become a beehive for tourists. There is still some reminiscing of how people used to live their life here prior to the area becoming open to the world. The generic architecture consists of the concept of having people work downstairs in their art shops, cafes, and restaurants, and above them (or in the back alleyways) are the original homes of the locals who have remained in the area. Some art galleries belong to famous artists such as Ren Wei Yin, who had to endure being a shoe repair person for 15 years during the Chinese revolution because in those days his art was not recognised in China. You’ll find all kinds of souvenirs here from ancient watches to shirt’s with an improvised image of President Obama embedded into a Mao Zedong image and labelled ‘Oba Mao’, to all kinds of weird bric brac.
A complete contrast to the ivory towers of Lujiazhui in Pudong, here you’ll find bicycles, hanging laundry from the windows, and even people washing their utensils outside their homes. If you love contemporary art and design, or just want to inspire yourself by knowing what it may be like to live in the real Shanghai then make sure you have at least half a day free to explore this part of the city. I even managed to discover a cleverly designed handmade lamp made from fork and knife sitting outside someone’s home.
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