Neighboring the Riverside Expo Area, Tianzifang is enshrouded in a unique ambiance: sharp and chic yet historical, remotely commercial despite of its prime location, secluding itself from the hustle and bustle downtown in the vicinity of the former French Concession Area.
If you are not an enthusiastic collector of front door photos of tourist attractions, you may start anywhere else other than the archway on Lane 20, Taikang Road. As the main entrance to Tianzifang, the lane under the archway only allows two persons to pass shoulder to shoulder. Young couples visiting the “Mecca for petty bourgeois” cannot jostle through the thongs without hitting on the walls from time to time, which explains why the walls are constantly repainted. Wondering into Tianzifang via Tianchengli in the west, you will see clothes drying in the sun above your head. Dubbed “national flags”, they smell soap and sunshine, or rather, “the scent of Shanghai lanes”. And the next things you see are shops and cafes studding the circuitous lanes, from which Tianzifang derives its charm: folk, carefree, artistic and petty bourgeois.
Ten souvenirs to bring back home
No. 1 Books on arts and culture
Before 1998, Tianzifang only referred to the little Lane 210 on Taikang Road, which smelled industry of old and small workshops located here and marketplace of the bazaar on the unpaved Taikang Road. The current Tianzifang got its SOHO and art tags in 1998, and its name several years later from a famous painter Huang Yongyu, who named it after the most long-lived Chinese painter.
The entry of Yilufa Culture Development Company on December 28, 1998 marked the reincarnation of Taikang Road as an art street in Shanghai, followed by a number of artists and artwork shops. And that’s where Tianzifang derives its art origin.
At Deke Erh Art Center, you can find artistic and cultural books and alums on topics such as Chinese historical architecture. Before Tianzifang gained such popularity, the second floor of the center was open to the public, and visitors could rush into his studio to talk to the renowned photographer. But visitor can still have a rewarding conversation with the staff here, or be amazed by the photographs over coffee and basking in the sunshine softened by the translucent roof.
No. 2 Photos
Petty bourgeois love Tianzifang for different reasons. Some prefer its liveliness and experiencing local residents’ daily life; some linger in the various creative shops and galleries. Some are fond of the 1920s-style thermos, music boxes and furniture, and some are attracted to the folk arts, such as Shanghai qipao, Vietnamese scarves and Tibetan jewelries.
The foreigners summarize its essence in one simple word: bohemianism. While thousands of miles away from Europe, Tianzifang manages to embody the bohemian style. The background of Shanghai lanes and diffused lights enriches even a randomly taken photo. Residents here, no matter they are putting futons out or chatting with neighbors, are never shy of cameras. A corner deep down in the lane, an ancient well, a broken bamboo chair, a rose on the coffee table, a cat crouching in the yard, a girl holding artworks…everything here makes a perfect photograph. A photo taken here not only proofs your visit, but tells your attitudes towards life.
No. 3 Fragrance
Although it is not the only one of its kind, the Fragrance Library at Tianzifang is unique in style. The cracking narrow wooden ladder leads visitors to the former kitchen, garret and main bedroom, which are now refurnished with white wall and wooden racks displaying various scents. It takes only a second for those who once lived in old Shanghai houses to imagine what the house once was.
“Gardenia” stands out of a series of American scents such as “thunderstorm”, “grasses after rain” and “play doh”. Web-towel-covered flower basket in their arms, flower grannies peddle along lanes during the blossom of gardenia around the Dragon Boat Festival. This is the unforgettable fragrance and memory for Shanghainese.
No. 4 Tea
Tea, or coffee, is indispensable to the life of the taste-pursuing petty bourgeois. But rather than the price, what really matters is being “the right choice”. Therefore, only through relentless trying and selecting can the petty bourgeois find the right thing to their taste.
Stores at Tianzifang are the ideal places for such experimenting. Chami+ offers tea in five colors, i.e. red, green, yellow, white and black. Its healthy and nicely-packed Taiwan grinding tea and organic refreshments are especially popular. Cordial girls here not only treat you with a cup of specialty tea upon your arrival, but also take delight in telling you more about tea. While Zhenchalin, another Chinese tea shop, provides an escape from the hectic world with tea, light music, and fragrance of fruits.
To petty bourgeois, tea set and environment also counts. Chami+ chooses white china, log furniture and ikebana, while Zhenchalin creates the atmosphere of a traditional teahouse with handmade cups from Jingdezhen, traditional furniture such as Chinese square tables and old floor.
No. 5 Milk bottles
In Shanghai, before milk carton packaging became available, drinking milk involved many steps. You were passed a bottle of milk by staff at the milk station after they put the date on your card. You had to untie the thread, remove the paper cover, put in the straw before enjoying the fresh milk. If you were hurrying to school, you could take the bottle away by depositing 50 cents, and return the empty bottle the next day.
With the advancement of preservation technology, milk bottles seemed to disappear overnight. Yet you can still relive this childhood memory at Tianzifang. Kommune brings you back to the 1980s, not only by the featuring mingling environment at the large courtyard, but also by coffee served in large bowls and latte or yogurt in milk bottles. The Australian owner becomes shrewder over time, now charging a non-refundable deposit for each milk bottle taken away. Ten yuan for a childhood memory? Deal!
Also can be found in many shops here are enamel cups, another item associated with many petty bourgeois’ childhood memory.
No. 6 DIY toy bears and silver jewelries
In this materials-dominating age, many petty bourgeois value time and thought over price tags. At Tianzifang, there are many shops for them to DIY.
Legend has it that a guy went to every silver jewelry store in Shanghai in search of one that can make a silver whistle for his love overseas. After being turned down by many stores, saying a silver whistle is too hard to make, this dude finally got a yes from the owner of a silver store at Tianzifang. They spent over eight hours redoing dozens of times to finally complete this mission impossible. The silver whistle made of 10-gram silver was charged only 300 yuan, a sure loss for the owner even without taking account of the efforts he made, yet the human touch means a lot more than that.
At Animal Factory on No. 3, Tianzifang, girls are making toy bears and bunnies for their love, too dedicated to care about being pricked by needle from time to time. Keqi Doll provides a variety of undrawn white dolls, on which you can exercise your imagination freely to work on its appearance and look.
No. 7 Clothes
Each of the few clothes stores at Tianzifang is meticulously run so that it satisfies the choosy customer and is worthy of the expensive rental. Shokay, a chain store started at Tianzifang, is run by two Harvard graduates, who choose to pursue their dreams at the expense of high salaries overseas. The yakwool purchased from Tibet is exported after been woven by woman weavers at Chongming, Shanghai, as a way of increasing the income of Tibetans and woman weavers. Aside from the human touch, the soft-and-smooth-feeling products of the brand, ranging from scarves to baby wears, are of high quality. At the flagship on Taikang Road, visitors can sign up for a special walk, learning how to knit a scarf in 10 minutes while wondering along the historical Shanghai lane.
The same ingenuity is found in La Vie owned by Jicheng, a local designer. Seasonal clothes, accessories and household ornaments, which are skillfully displayed to blend into the original wooden floor and traditional furniture moved from old houses, are bound to put a exquisite touch to your life.
No. 8 Shanghai Vive
Shanghai Vive, the top cosmetics brand in Shanghai in 1930s that vanished since 1950s, re-debuted in 2010. Many young people may not be familiar with this brand, but the classic calendar picture showing two pretties in qipao standing in a fence-enclosed magnificent garden is nothing new to them.
The two pretties epitomize perfect ladies in old Shanghai: smart and charming. Common girls lived in Tianzifang back in the 1930s may prefer affordable vanishing cream, but smart and charming ladies that coincide with Shanghai Vive could always be found in Shanghai. The Shanghai Vive store at Tianzifang offers an array of cosmetics, including Radiance Restorative Cream that adopts traditional prescription, Ye Shanghai Eau de Parfum attached with tassel sprayer and splendid pearl necklaces.
No. 9 Dessert
Dessert is one of the petty bourgeois’ favorite topics. To them, savoring a delicious dessert in a relaxing environment satiates not only their taste buds but also their soul.
Come and enjoy a tiramisu sitting on the sofa at Café Dan, a handcraft coffee house on the second and third floors, whose owner was talked into quitting his job in Tokyo to run this coffee house by his wife. Though looking nothing special, the tiramisu full of Mascarpone cheese to go with a cup of espresso is more than satisfying.
Le Crème Milano located at the backdoor of Tianzifang specializes in ice cream. Instead of staying at the cramped store, you may order a four-flavored ice cream to enjoy while sauntering along the lanes. The special flavor Le Creme Milano has hazelnut with Ferrero Rocher and Nutella chocolate mixing inside.
Bojoo Dessert’s palace yogurt and Red Shoe’s puffs are also afternoon refreshment recommendations.
No. 10 Artworks
Little items are lovable but never forget to visit the contemporary Chinese arts and sculptures here. The modern sculptures at Duke Gallery, such as a chubby kid energetically blowing a trumpet, are especially popular among foreigners. Jiyiyuan Gallery features modern paintings, the abstract ones of which go perfectly with large sitting rooms. Largely because of the reputation of Hanyuan Bookstore, many visitors are attracted to Hanyuan Gallery, where Deke Erh’s works on both city landscape and street life are collected.
At a studio set up by an American, old Shanghai calendars with lady pictures are set into waste window frames. The combination of pictures yellowed with age and weathered wooden frames turned into beautiful ornaments. “Anything old can be turned into rare treasures once given a creative touch.”
If such artworks are too complicated to understand or too expensive to afford, you may as well turn to Japanese illustrator Hiroshi Watanabe’s works. Bears, bunnies and dolphins that look soft like marshmallows will put you in tender mood.