Tianzifang: A Close Look at Shanghai’s “Creative Art Park”

Shanghai's Taikang Road has become a magnet for art galleries for some time, but I didn’t realize until recently that many of the old rowhouse apartments in the neighborhood between Taikang Road and Jianguo Road have been renovated and turned into shops, galleries, cafes, and restaurants--several hundred and growing.  Josephine Zhou, a colleague of my wife from her days at the Shanghai Music Channel is now producing a TV show about creative arts.  She asked me to co-host this week’s show about Tianzifang.  We were helped out by Boss Wu or Wu Laoban, the man who oversees the development of this “Creative Park.”  The basic idea of the show was to have three hosts (myself, a Chinese woman from Hangzhou and a Shanghainese guy named A Yan who’s apparently a big celebrity here) walk around the district and find five creative spots each.  We then took a photo of each spot (could be a shop, something in the shop, an architectural feature, etc.) and collected them at the end to give an overall assessment of Tianzifang.  

It was tough for me at first, since I was supposed to describe each place I visited in some detail in Chinese and without any script to go on.  Josephine, the cameraman, and Wu Laoban coached me through it, and after a while I got the hang of the job and began to have fun with it.  Wu Laoban took me first to a shop that sells colorful silken embroideries made by the Miao people in Guizhou province, originally for their own clothing and apparel but now more commercially oriented and designed to make wall-hangings, pillows, purses, and other knick-knacks.  We have a friend, Xiao Lan, who runs a similar shop on Julu Road, though her shop carries more original Miao (and other minority) artworks—this one was mostly full of items that they’d made expressly to sell in Shanghai, whereas Xiao Lan’s shop has more authentic garments made originally for the Miao people themselves.  One special feature that I focused on in this shop was that they employ two Miao women, dressed in their traditional costumes, who were busy embroidering colorful designs onto cloth sheets. One was making a dragon-phoenix design, typical in Han Chinese culture but apparently a staple of Miao culture as well.  I asked them how long it took to make one embroidery.  They said it took as much as one to two months, of eight-hour working days.  That's a lot of hand-stitching, and you can see how beautiful the results are.  You wonder how much these people are earning (not the kind of question I could ask for a Chinese TV show) but at least you get to see the labor up front rather than imagining it from a distance (would that the same held true for bluejeans--see my previous blog on that topic).

Next we moved on to the studio of famous Shanghai artist Chen Yifei, the oil painter, who passed away three years ago.  According to Wu Laoban, he was the first person to move to Taikang Road and set up an art studio in 1998.  The second was Deke Erh (Er Dongqiang), a Shanghainese photographer who has made a name for himself both here and abroad (his studio is located next to or very close to that of Chen Yifei).  The building Chen chose for his studio was originally a factory that made machines for packaging food.  He kept the open space of the factory and the original wood-beamed A-frame ceiling, but built a small room at the far end around the original fireplace, which he used to entertain guests (a cozy little space containing a sofa and chair set and a coffee table and two prominently displayed photos of Chen meeting Prince Charles), and above that a loft space accessible by a stairway but blocked off to visitors.  The studio is filled with antiques and his paintings hang on the walls.  Wu Laoban showed us some of the antiques his friend Chen had collected from Old Shanghai, including a small wooden box that turned out to be a refrigerator, de rigeur in the 1920s, and a 1930s Art Deco-style rotating bookshelf for lazy readers who don’t want to leave their chairs.  He’d also rescued a beautiful wooden door from an old French Concession mansion that was being destroyed, and used it for a closet.  

It was about this point that I was made aware of something that has been evading me all these years, despite being an expert on Old Shanghai.  I used to think that “lao Shanghai” and “jiu Shanghai” were interchangeable, lao and jiu being synonyms for “old.”  Turns out I was wrong.  At one point the cameraman told me to stop saying “jiu Shanghai” and it was explained to me that this term is associated with the cursed Guomindang, who ruled over most of the country from 1927-1937 and again in the late 1940s, until the CCP and the PLA sent them fleeing to Taiwan in '49.  So after that I only used “lao Shanghai,” which apparently is a more general and less politicized term for the pre-Liberation era.

The third spot we visited was a shop run by two Japanese people, a young man and woman who could speak some Chinese.  The shop, Iseya, is also the family name of the owner, who’s family hails from Kyoto and has been in the kimono business for nearly a century.  The shop featured some striking garments and other knick-knacks made out of the same cloth used to make kimonos.  Wu Laoban wanted to make it clear that people from all parts of the world are welcome to set up shop--and apparently you don't need a license to do so, since it's a special "experimental" zone

Fourth, we checked out another small shop in a back alleyway that sold “minority” clothing, scarves, and other colorful garments, but this time it wasn’t the merchandise Wu Laoban wanted to show us, but rather the design of the shop itself.  The shop owner had cleverly taken bits and pieces of the old shikumen neighborhood and refashioned them for creative design and practical use.  An old ladder in the back of the shop went up to a loft space, which held several chests that were originally owned by inhabitants of the neighborhood back in the 1930s.  An old window frame had been de-windowed and was now attached to a half-circular table and used to hang purses for display.  A hefty old wooden door had been stripped of its paint down to the wood and was now being used as a display table in the middle of the shop.  Finally, and this was definitely the piece de resistance, a stone basin once used by local peasants to grind nuomi had been turned into a water basin for a bubbling fountain that ran through a drain, prettily covered with a pebbly mosaic, at the corner of the shop.  Clearly a lot of work had gone into the design details of this shop.

Finally we filmed in a café restaurant appropriately called The Film.  The key design feature of this café is that it contains a room known as a “guojielou” or “cross-street building”, suspended between two shikumen buildings above the alleyway, providing additional space for a home but not getting in the way of pedestrian and vehicular traffic.  This isn’t the only café to include a guojielou in its design—there are several others in the neighborhood as well.

The district is built out of not one but several old lilong neighborhoods with slightly different styles of houses.  It is in process of vigorous expansion.  A lot of money, energy, and creativity are now being poured into this “experimental” district and the sights and sounds of renovations are everywhere—lots of mingong construction workers carrying building materials in and out by hand or wheelbarrow and pounding, scraping, and hammering away inside the interiors of the buildings.  The exteriors have more or less been left intact, as have the basic structures of the buildings, which is what makes the Tianzifang district unique and different to other development projects such as Xintiandi.  Despite the throngs of tourists from all over the world, I highly recommend going there with an eye for detail and investigating the various shops and restaurants at a leisurely pace.  This is the perfect spot in town to be a flaneur--if you're impatient, try walking a tortoise on a leash as the original flaneurs did in 19th century Paris.  To be sure, the spot is already well known and apparently has made it into the guidebooks of many countries, especially Japan.  And be prepared for more clicking cameras per square foot than any other tourist site in town.

While there is some original artwork and craftsmanship to be found in the shops, the real treat lies in appreciating the designwork of the stores themselves.  In a city in which old shikumen/lilong neighborhoods are rapidly making way for ugly monotonous office buildings and shopping malls, this district offers some real hope for preservation of at least some of "Lao Shanghai".

Here's another piece on this district written up in a local paper.