Located in Shanghai 420 meter long Taikang Lu has since grown to be called Tianzi Fang. A winding little neighbourhood filled with artist shops, small restaurants, gift shops and a small museum in a touristic spot for both foreigners as Chinese. Having been their on one of the busier days when I was barely shuffling to get to the next shop, I went over and over again afterwards on not so busy days and during my 2017 trip we came back and walked those so familiar streets.
The make up of Tianzi Fang is Shikumen and small factories. Shikumen literally means stone doors. Shikumen are alleys of houses architecturally built as a mix of traditionally Shanghainese and western style houses. First build in 1860 and when they reached their height of popularity almost 9000 Shikumen buildings were built in Shanghai. These days Shikumen are more rare as most Shanghainese have moved into large apartment buildings. But the same type of close knit neighbourhoods are still around in Shanghai, hidden between tall buildings usually inhabited by lesser wealthy people.
Usually Shikumen are two or three story structures distinguished by high brick walls and build directly next to each other in straight alleys. The entrance to each house is usually marked by a stylistic stone arch. Usually there would a courtyard within house like traditional Chinese houses. Though the houses were so small.
The first houses were built out of wood since a lot of migrant laborers from surrounding provinces came to work in Shanghai. In 1853 after a rebellion more migrants and refugees came into Shanghai. Property developers had to build large numbers of residential buildings for a low price but also quick to build. Within 10 months over 800 of these buildings were build. However since they were built out of wood they tended to catch fire rather quickly they were banned by the Authorities. Using a traditional technique of a wooden frame and bricks Shikumen were created.
This caused the rent to go up and quickly caught popularity throughout Shanghai. By the 1910s they were building bigger versions of the same style buildings, more elaborate decorations and finally better sanitary equipment.
The neighborhood centres on a block of Shikumen residential development dating from 1933. The shikumen complex was named “Zhicheng Fang”, where “Zhicheng” meant “realisation of ambition” while “Fang” meant “neighbourhood” and was a common suffix for shikumen estates. Today’s Tianzi Fang precinct covers not only the former Zhicheng Fang, but also other adjoining houses, apartments and industrial buildings of various styles. Located near the eastern end of the Zhaojiabang canal and the southern edge of the Shanghai French Concession, Zhicheng Fang remained an ordinary residential neighbourhood until the last quarter of the 20th century, when the cheap rent but convenient location attracted artists to set up studios there.
In 1998, the formerly busy wet market on Taikang Road was moved indoors. In 2001, the precinct was redesignated an artistic and creative quarter, drawing on its former popularity with artists. At the same time, the whole precinct was given the name “Tianzi Fang”, a pun on Tian Zifang, a figure from the Warring States period and often referred to as China’s earliest recorded artist. In 2006 it was slated for demolition to make way for redevelopment. Opposition among local business owners and residents, as well as a famous artist Chen Yifei who had a studio in Tianzi fang, in addition to a group submitted a proposal to the local government to preserve the Taikang Road area and its traditional architecture and ambience.
Rezoning of Tianzi Fang into a tourist precinct began in 2005/2006 with nearby art schools and studios, and later small international business owners found out about Tianzi Fang through the local grapevine. Its development began very slowly with local merchants, a New Zealand store, Japanese restaurants, and a tea house setting up in the district. From the beginning of 2007, journalists, visitors and local residents began to visit the area and spread the word about a cosy little lane district that housed some interesting and creative businesses. Additional articles in both local and foreign media such as the New York Times helped increase awareness of this older and unusual community, that stood out among the more modern and commercial shopping areas of Shanghai.
Tianzifang has become a tourist attraction and has more than 200 diverse small businesses such as cafes, bars, restaurants, art galleries, craft stores, design houses and studios, and even French bistros. Located right across from it is one of the largest shopping malls in Shanghai and around the outside of the complex streets there are a lot of Korean food stalls and korean fashion. Located close to Dapuqiao station it is easy to access.
Despite all the businesses selling trendy craft and some foreign goods, the area does not have the look of having been overly beautified – electricity cables are still strung overhead, and air conditioning units are obvious on the outside of the buildings, in that it has managed to preserve its residential feel, adding to its appeal.
If you like hopping a couple of bars or spend some time shopping for really touristic items like fridge magnets of Shanghai this is the place to go. Everything is a little more expensive of course due to it being such a tourist place but the atmosphere is always very welcoming.