Monday, 18 March 2013

Trendy Tianzifang

A courtyard area in Tianzifang with cafes as well as boutiques
Yesterday a friend took me to a cute neighbourhood in Shanghai called Tianzifang in the French Concession area. She calls it a better version of Nanluoguxiang, the hutong or alley in Beijing that has a number of trendy boutiques and cafes, but is now becoming very commercialized and some buildings are rebuilt to look old, thus losing its authentic flavour.

A sign at the entrance giving the rules of the neighbourhood
Instead Tianzifang is quickly emerging as a hotspot to check out for both locals and visitors alike. It's across from a giant branch of Tsui Wah cha chaan teng in a strip mall. There's just a small sign indicating you are entering Tianzifang and says no dogs are allowed.

Inside is a warren-like place, and everywhere you turn are small alleys filled with tiny boutiques that in turn lead to other ones. You can walk right through one into another that leads to yet another path. And so it's a great place to wander and see all kinds of things for sale from kitsch China souvenirs to gorgeous clothing.

The even more interesting thing about this place is that it is an actual residence -- people are living in the area, so it will be interesting hear about what they feel about so many people invading their living spaces, though it is bringing money into the neighbourhood. However I did hear the government wanted to clear the residents out so that the place could be further developed; but this would only cause the place to lose its local flavour.

Inside Song Exquisite on its opening day
We walked into one boutique and the owner, a woman in her late 50s immediately asked us if the atmosphere in the store was dark because of the lighting as she originally wanted a large light by the entrance. But we said that we didn't know what it was like before, and thought it was comfortable. She was so pleased and went about introducing the line of clothes to us that looked contemporary Chinese.

When I touched the fabric I was very impressed -- the cashmere jackets were extremely soft, and they also had beautiful Chinese embroidery on them, while the dresses were made of silk also with flowers and birds embroidered on them. She explained the cashmere came from Italy, while the embroidery was done in Suzhou. Some of the designs were very modern and I tried a few on. In the end I settled for a black bias-cut poncho with a floral design embroidered on the right shoulder. The owner was so excited that I was her first customer -- today was her opening day -- that she gave me a small discount.

Gorgeous embroidery on a silk dress
We also saw some cafes serving Western food like traditional English breakfasts and sandwiches, though another friend warned me later that eating here didn't seem very hygienic as it didn't have the infrastructure to support food and beverage outlets (ie proper dish cleaning facilities). It probably won't be long before some Chinese eateries or snack shops spring up too.

I also found one of my favourite shops in Beijing called Woo here, which sells cashmere and silk scarves. But this time we were bowled over by the expensive prices and we didn't see anything in particular we liked. One shop girl modeled a silk scarf with Chinese buttons that could be transformed into some 20 different ways, thus making it look like you were wearing something new everyday. The price tag was over 2,000RMB, which seemed a bit extreme for what was a versatile piece of silk, but we weren't too keen on the different ways of wearing it.

Shanghai residents live in this burgeoning area
We were there for over an hour and only saw a fraction of the shops, but it was definitely a good taste of Tianzifang. The place is a bustling area that shows lots of potential -- as long as it's managed properly. We really hope the municipal government doesn't control this place too much. Apparently it's improved a lot already, cleaner and even has dedicated public washrooms. But we worry if the government really does kick residents out that the place will lose its lustre.

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