Without a doubt, one of my favorite places to take visitors in Shanghai is Tianzifang. Part local neighborhood, part art and coffee street, the area is a refreshing change of pace when the rest of the city is chaotic, high-tech, and just so…shiny.
Located in the French Concession, Tianzifang (which I still refer to by its older name of Taikang Lu, referring to the main road on which it sits) features old-style architecture known as shikumen. The area has maintained its charm by allowing artists, boutique shops, and cafes to open shop while keeping the shikumen and their character in tact (a sharp contrast to Xintiandi, whose shikumen are glaringly new replicas). Because of this boom-from-the-inside-out, the streets outside Tianzifang are nondescript, and you could easily walk past its entrance without knowing what lay inside.
Considering how frustrating it is to watch the rapid Westernization of China, at least Tianzifang has least retained some of the old with the new.
Adding to the local feel, residents still hanging their laundry in the lanes and above the coffee shops, do their vegetable shopping next door, and often just sit outside and observe all the foreigners in their neighborhood. They don’t understand the fuss — one NYT write-up quoted a local who thought, “[These] are such poor quality houses. But foreigners really love them, and think they are emblematic of Shanghai.” (For the record, they are. The Chinese just have an annoying habit of thinking everything newer is better.)
To give a sense of what it’s like to stroll through Taikang Lu, the following photos are presented in chronological order from a two-hour morning walk: finding something different at every turn, in every lane.
I’d recommend starting your day at Kommune. Situated near the entrance of Tianzifang with an unmissable courtyard seating area, the place is popular for its brunches and bowls of coffee (yes, bowls).
One shop not yet open for the day advertises the need for a white guy, if not for an actual wedding, then most likely for a commercial or movie.
A local security guard manages the peace.
Don’t forget to look up every once in a while.
Taikang Lu has a welcoming feeling not usually found in most shopping areas in Shanghai. As one newspaper noted, it “doesn’t impose its identity upon visitors, but instead lets them discover the street’s unique qualities on their own.”
The cornerstones (ha, get it?) of Tianzifang: design and community.
Decorational lighting above a boutique shop.
A dead-end lane, which led into a Japanese noodle and sushi restaurant.
The shops are perfect for unique gifts and events — I once went to a yak-cheese tasting hosted by a shop supporting sustainable development in Tibet!
However, there are inevitably some curios to be found…
Not a fan of toilet phones? I can guarantee that two steps across the lane will be a boutique shop selling post-modern/hip/design-y knick knacks and home furnishings, with appropriate lighting to match.
Typography and wordplay are also utilized more frequently in Taikang Lu, being the hip area that it is. The sign below said, “I ♥ 東囍 [Dong Xi]” — Dong Xi is the name of the store. However, pronounced differently (and spelled “东西”), it means stuff. So they’re saying “I ♥ Stuff” while promoting their store. If that’s not hipster irony….
(I think I’ve made that explanation really confusing, but trust me, it’s a cute play on words.)
Over the last few years, Tianzifang has grown in popularity and is no longer a local’s secret. However, despite the tourists taking photos, the hipsters having coffee, the businessmen swilling drinks, and the artists showing off, its character has remained — and that’s why Taikang Lu is still one of my favorite places. For anyone visiting the city, I definitely recommended a walk around here to relax, interact with locals, and enjoy relative peace and calm in Shanghai.
All photos in this post are credited to my boyfriend, Mike, and were taken using a 75-300mm telephoto lens.
Between Ruijin Lu and Sinan Lu
Main entrance at 210 Taikang Lu
Closest metro station: Line 9, Dapuqiao Station (5 min walk)