Friday, November 26, 2010

Tian Zi Fang 田子坊

Tian Zi Fang (TZF) is an inviting local & expat haunt in Shanghai, where you’ll find art galleries, boutiques and F&B establishments, housed in historical Shikumen. TZF is also getting increasingly popular on the tourists radar.

Video on Tian Zi Fang and from 2:35 minutes onwards, 1933.

Shikumen is to Shanghai what
Siheyuan (四合院) and Hutong (胡同) are to Beijing - both are representative historical residential architecture of the respective cities. Shikumen 石库门, which literally translates into "stone gate”, refers to the stone doorframe predominant in this architectural style. These stone-gated brick 2-3-storey townhouses are a fusion of Western & Chinese architectural styles and their origins can be traced back to the end of the Qing dynasty.

“At their peak, the Shikumen-style neighbourhoods numbered more than 9000 in Shanghai and took up 60 per cent of the total housing space of the city. The Shikumen style, which has survived for more than a century, is however no longer suitable for modern urban living. Since the 1990s, Shanghai began a new wave of renovation and development, demolishing many Shikumen-style buildings. It was only when more and more of these houses were replaced by skyscrapers that people began to realize such monuments of Shanghai's past deserve to be preserved.” (

To learn more about Shikumen, you can visit the
Shikumen Museum at Xintiandi, 25, Lane 181, Taicang Road, Shanghai.

TZF, similar to
Xintiandi 新天地, are gentrified forms of Shikumen, whereby the historical buildings are actively conserved – restored and pragmatically converted for commercial purposes (usually catering to the monied middle-class taste) – as opposed to preserving them as esteemed but rarefied white elephants. But while Xintiandi is more pastiche and comprises of mainly reconstructed Shikumen replicas and seems like an entirely commercialized development, TZF is still housed in preserved original Shikumen and retains some authenticity with indigenous residents still residing in the commune. So there’s still a sense of community life here, as well as a delightful irony – as this is one place where you can see visitors picking out a post-modern art piece or sipping a cappuccino in an al fresco café, then turn the corner and you’ll come across local residents hanging out their laundry or neighbours having a game of mahjong. It’s uncertain if TZF will eventually go the way of Xintiandi & become fully gentrified and its existing residents displaced. But for now, TZF remains, as what a documentary described: “a living fossil of an architectural gem”.

TZF started off as Shanghai’s Art Street, when famous painters Chen Yifei, Er Dongqiang, et al settled here in 1998. Successively, other creative industry and craft stores joined in, giving rise to TZF’s reputation as a burgeoning creative hub. Latching onto the buzz, more owners of Shikumen started renting out their ground floors for commercial purposes. Since then, TZF has been flourishing with painting, sculpture, design, antique and photography ateliers. Drawn to the ensuing bohemian vibe, other lifestyle industries soon start to follow and set up shop here as well. In 2002, Kommune became the first Western restaurant to set up in TZF, offering coffee and barbeque for Shanghai’s Australian expatriate community. In 2006, TZF was awarded “China’s best creative industry park”.

On a side note, Shanghai has seen an influx of creative industry parks. Thanks to the city’s mounting efforts at preserving and developing historic industrial structures, a growing batch of old factory buildings and warehouses have been conserved as creative parks. I’ve read about two notable ones that I would love to visit the next time I return to Shanghai –
M50 at Moganshan Road - ateliers of some of Shanghai’s best known contemporary artists are housed in this converted textile mill, and 1933 - an art deco landmark converted from a former slaughterhouse.

TZF (田子坊), being a 坊 (fang), square, means that it is bordered by 4 streets. A map below, taken from its website, gives you an idea of the labyrinthine layout of this compact square.

Other than the studios and galleries that testify to the artists enclave that is TZF, there is also an interesting eclectic mix of shops – from antique shops to unique international & local fashion to artistic paraphernalia, handicraft etc, and foreign-cuisine restaurants (don’t recall coming across any Chinese or Shanghainese restaurant in TZF. Instead there are plenty of Thai restaurants. So I guess this is not really a place you’ll come to, if you only have time for one quintessential meal in Shanghai?). Generally, there is a cosmopolitan vibe among both the shop mix and shoppers.

This is also the place where you can find those communist paraphernalia that’s so popular with Western tourists visiting China, albeit, here the souvenirs come with added artistic flair and lotsa good-humored jibe. There seems to be plenty of free rein in the commercial interpretation of Chinese cultural icons –– eg. The Obamao – a take on Chairman Mao,
Lei Feng plushie toy and my favorite – porcelain caricatures of terracotta warriors striking the classic Marilyn Monroe skirt-over-the-air-vent pose (pity I couldn’t get a good shot of them).

The interesting juxtaposition of fashionable shop interiors with heritage Shikumen, lents TZF such a charming old-world, bohemian character that makes it quite the shutterbugs’ heaven.

We came across this shop selling the works of Japanese illustrator, Hiroshi Watanabe, who's supposedly very popular in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. In these parts, he's probably referred to by his Chinese moniker - 渡边宏 (du bian hong). In compact TZF alone, there are 2 outlets. Serendipitously, the artist was in town that day and dropped by for an autograph session, so we bought a couple of autographed limited edition art prints. If you like kawaii animal illustrations (we particularly dig the pig illustrations), do keep a lookout for the shops at Lane 248, unit 21 and Lane 249, unit 15, when you're at TZF. Listing of other outlets in the rest of Shanghai and China can be found at (in Chinese).

If you understand Chinese, and wish to learn more about TZF, there is a
video of a Chinese documentary found on TZF website

Address: Tianzifang, Lane 210 Taikang Lu, near Sinan Lu / 田子坊, 泰康路210弄, 近思南路
Nearest subway: Dapuqiao 打浦桥
Website (in Chinese):

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