One of the great joys of Tianzifang is wandering around its maze of small lanes while absorbing its frenetic energy. On a weekend or busy day it’s almost impossible to follow any kind of dedicated route, so don’t try to fight the crowds that throng here; just give in and let them take you on a unique adventure.
Taikang Road on gate number one is a good place to start your Tianzifang exploration. The road is easily accessed from exit one of Dapuqiao metro station, and is right next to a tourist information centre where you can pick up a handy map of the area. The gate is also the entrance to Lane 210, where Chen Yifei, one of China’s most renowned contemporary artists, took over two abandoned factory buildings and converted them into his studios in the late 1990s. With cheap rents and large residential buildings available, local artists from around the world set up shops in the area, which eventually turned into a thriving district with a commercial neighbourhood.
As you enter the lane, keep a look out for the stone archway that welcomes visitors into the labyrinth, engraved with the Chinese characters for Tianzifang. When it was redeveloped, the area was named in homage to China’s earliest recorded painter, Tian Zifang, which in itself was a nod to the area’s reputation as a bastion of creative expression in the city.
One of the buildings that Chen took over is still open as an art studio at 2 Lane 210. As you begin your wanderings, take a quick look into his studio to see some of his artwork and the restored factory building. If you are after something modern, check out Lu Shanghai, where you can get cool contemporary Chinese designs printed onto a T-shirt. Elsewhere on Lane 210, the Tianzifang Art Centre provides local artists with a venue for photography, painting and other art exhibitions.
From Lane 210, as you go deeper into the heart of Tianzifang, pay attention to the distinctive shikumen buildings that house the area’s shops, bars and restaurants. Meaning ‘stone warehouse gate’, shikumen residences are regarded as the most representative of Shanghai’s styles of houses, as characteristic and typical of the city as the hutongs and courtyards of Beijing.
Shikumen combine Western and Chinese architectural styles and feature distinctive large doorways framed in stone. There are some particularly nice examples of these on the upper part of Lane 248, which you can access from Lane 210, but you can see them dotted all around Tianzifang.
The shikumen in this area were built in the 1930s and, as with the nearby Xintiandi area of bars and restaurants, the buildings in Tianzifang have been carefully restored for commercial use. But while Xintiandi’s renovators went for a polished new look, restoration work at Tianzifang has been approached with a light touch. The area has a distinctively lived-in atmosphere, and some buildings are still home to local residents. You can even spot their washing hung out across the streets!
Smack-bang in the heart of Tianzifang, Lane 248 is the centre of the action. Here, you will find almost everything from gaudy souvenirs, cute handbags and purses to contemporary takes on traditional Chinese clothing. Shi Yi Ji, which has a couple of branches on Lane 248, sells a particularly cute assortment of postcards, home accessories and stationery, while Beijing Fan at number 37, is dedicated to handmade silk fans. Off the main drag, the many tiny novelty shops that occupy the arterial streets off the lane are an excellent place to practise your haggling skills, as the sellers here drive hard bargains for their steamed bun magnets and panda soft toys.
To fuel your shopping, you’ll find a host of restaurants and food stalls all along Lane 248 vying for your attention. Gain culinary inspiration by observing the weird and wonderful things on sticks that everyone here indulges in. Many stalls even have free samples, allowing you to try the different snacks available. If you need to take the weight off your feet, Café Dan at number 41 is well known for its freshly brewed coffee and Japanese homestyle food.
Tianzifang is fairly big, and you can easily spend a couple of hours wandering around and visiting all the shops and galleries. If you can time your visit to be here when night falls, you will find that, after dark, Tianzifang takes on another feel. The area is filled with many trendy bars and pubs dotted throughout its alleyways.
Hidden right in the centre, Kommune is worth searching out, not only for its simple yet tasty food, but also for its unique setting and excellent cocktails. On a warm evening, the wonderful outdoor seating area is usually overflowing with arty locals and creative expats, maintaining Tianzifang’s reputation as the coolest art district in town.