Turn from Ruijin Road to Taikang Road, walk through one alley after another, you will find no differences among them at the first glance. Only when you get through the narrow entrance of this alley and see shops next to each other on the ground floors of the old buildings, and clusters of people of different colors, tourists with cameras, coffee drinkers, will you feel something special: you are at Tianzifang now.
The name “Tianzifang” has a history of only 7 to 8 years. It first appeared when Huang Yongyu, a famous painter, came to visit Chen Yifei’s studio and gave it a nickname – Tianzifang. “Tian Zifang” is said to be an ancient Chinese painter who lived the longest time, while “fang”, with the same pronunciation as that in “Tianzifang” yet a different Chinese character, refers to neighborhood in Chinese. A combination of the painter Tian Zifang and the word “fang”, the name Tianzifang means the neighborhood inhabited by painters.
Before 1998, it was only an area of old alleys, factories and a very common street called Taikang Road. The only thing special about it was that it was an open street-market, providing the residents there with fresh vegetables. And inside the alleys built in 1930s were factories. The so-called “alley” is the term for “lane” used by Shanghai locals, and lances in Shanghai are as famous as “Hutong” in Beijing. Around 2002, people engaging in the Creativity Arts arrived at the old factory buildings in Alley No. 210, and Tianzifang began to spontaneously expand to the residential areas around it. Without being noticed, the factories have been renovated into lofts and the ground floors of Shikumen residences have been occupied by all kinds of shops. “Tianzifang” has in fact become a real neighborhood.
The development of Tianzifang is not formally planned. Without knowing where its borders will be, everyday it witnesses coming and going. In short, it is ever changing. Compared with Xintiandi, Tianzifang has a stronger flavor of alley inhabitants’ life. To feel the real Tianzifang, you’d better enter through the inconspicuous alleys instead of through the neatly-landscaped main alley No. 210, and then you will get closer to the core of “alley culture” of Tianzifang.
Alleys have never been uniform but can be classified into old-style Shikumen alleys, new-style Shikumen alleys, new-style alley residences and garden alleys etc., according to the architecture forms. In the earlier days of the alleys, the buildings perhaps were of the same style. In the continuous expansion, bungalows, new-style buildings and occasionally garden villas gradually appeared in Shikumen. This kind of evolution in space and time can be found everywhere in Tianzifang.
Like spider webs with passages connecting to each other, vast areas of alleys seldom have straight lanes. The wonderful aspect of those alleys is that when you walk in a narrow branch lane and think you have come to the dead end, yet around the corner or a small gate will be another world. There are rarely blind lanes in Shanghai alleys. Today’s Tianzifang is composed of the alleys and branch alleys connecting to each other like this.