hidden shanghai

up till about seven years ago, tian ze fang (tzf) was still largely a hidden gem known mostly to shanghai’s artistic and expat community, its entrance from taikang lu barely noticeable. “look for a sign that says lane 210,” was the typical directions given to those on the hunt. the sign was a small white plaque with red lettering tacked onto the peeling wall of the row of shoplots that fronted tzf and hosted a motley selection of local businesses – from tiny mom-and-pop eateries to hardware shops and other trades that the regular visitor to china’s most progressive city would barely pay attention to.

step in and you would first have to walk through a maze-like labyrinth (nongtang in shanghainese) of shikumen, traditional homes with walls of stones and exposed bricks that still housed many local families. its palette was a muted grey, punctuated by patches of exposed bricks. bamboo sticks hung between windows bearing colourful laundry. bicycles and motorcycles were parked along the walls, children play in the narrow alleys in between homes, watched by doting grandparents.

depending on the time of day, you might hear the raucous cheers coming from a circle of men gathered around a game of chinese chess. further along the semi open-air walkway, a seamstress might have parked her sewing machine and be working on orders, while customers stand around and chat. hang around and you could see more everyday scenes of local residents going about their daily lives.


then when you turned a corner, more shikumen come into sight but in place of homely scenarios, you would be greeted by workers and customers moving about among shops, cafes, boutiques and bars. there was a decidedly european feel about the place, from the goods and services offered to the visiting clientele. art galleries, photographers’ studios, fashion boutiques featuring upscale local labels, specialty stores of artisanal crafts and souvenirs fill up the other converted shikumen.

at kommune, a tzf stalwart that was one of the first to open there, english-speaking wait staff took orders from tourists who read off a menu of wholesome western dishes. guests would sit under the shade of large umbrellas in the courtyard, surrounded by shops such as shirt flag, a local cult label that’s loved for its edgy t-shirts bearing propaganda-inspired motifs and is particularly popular for its hi panda series. shirt flag has since moved out and was replaced, very quickly, by other trendy boutiques.

kommune is one of the pioneers that have remained, along with photographer deke erh’s art centre that showcases his stunning snapshots of shanghai as well as books about the city that he authored or co-authored. at lane 248, you would find cafe dan by following your nostrils; in the mornings, owner taka niuya, a former engineer from japan, was often at his coffee roaster churning out batches of imported raw beans. the aroma would waft through the open window and permeate the surroundings, drawing caffeine lovers to step inside his three-storey cafe. taka has sinced moved his roaster to another unit but the cafe continues to serve fine coffee along with a menu of japanese eats and desserts.

if you had visited on a weekday, you would practically have had the whole place to yourself to enjoy a solitude that’s rare in this populous city of 26 million. you certainly wouldn’t have thought that behind the unassuming shoplots and past the bucolic scenes of local lives, was a bohemian paradise and a sanctuary from the city’s well-documented mad bustle.

that was then. it didn’t take long for tzf to build up a following. fuelled by mentions in independent guidebooks and travel blogs, the crowds began making their presence felt, even on weekdays. more of the residential shikumen began to make way for retail and dining outlets. in fact, each time one visits, it feels bigger in size and variety. the main entrance, once a non-descript stone arch, has been made more prominent with a humpty dumpty-like statue greeting visitors.

on weekends, the narrow lanes feel even tighter as the city and its tourists flock here for a slice of the hype

today’s tian ze fang is more of a sightseeing and shopping spot than a bohemian haven, where shops peddle mass-produced souvenirs that are designed to be whimsical over cultural and where every tourist wants to visit but are not quite sure why they should except that everyone they know has been or told them to. there are some gems among the warren of generic shops: specialty stores of artisanal goods through which the original spirit of the place lives on.

on weekends, the narrow lanes feel even tighter as the city and its tourists flock here for a slice of the hype; be prepared to be pushed, jostled or have to walk with your back against the worn walls. in other words, it’s an authentically shanghai experience. its atmospheric serenity may be a thing of the past as it is a hidden gem no more, but it is a vibrant section of the city that continuously feeds new interests. as the popular sobriquet yeh shanghai denotes, this is a city that never sleeps.

getting there tian ze fang is at 210 taikang road near sinan road in the french concession area, the parallel street is jianguo road near ruijin road. the city’s taxi drivers know the place well. if you prefer to take the metro, get off at dabuqiao (dabu bridge) station and tian ze fang is about five minutes’ walk away.