Tianzifeng is a tourist magnet which we’d missed when we first visited Shanghai a few years ago. Tianzifeng is famous for preserving a piece of Shanghai’s architectural heritage by changing its usage. In the second half of the 19th century Shanghai and several other concessionary port towns of China developed neighbourhoods (called lilong) with two or three story brick houses. This style of architecture is called Shikumen. At one time over half the houses in Shanghai were built in this style.
The construction boom of the early part of this century began to replace Shikumen style neighbourhoods with modern high-rise apartments. The area called Xintiandi was actually torn down, and then in a belated recognition of the historical importance of this kind of architecture, was rebuilt in the old style. In Tianzifeng (literally, the lane=fang of the emperor=Tianzi), on the other hand, the old neighbourhoods were retained. This is obvious when you enter the narrow lanes which now hold clothes, design, and jewellery shops, along with an equal number of restaurants. There were crowds, but very few were foreigners.
We were happy to see that not all the houses had become shops. This will never again be the organic neighbourhoods of the kind that we’d seen in Beijing’s hutongs, or the Li Wan district of Guangzhou, but there are a substantial number of people living here with doors firmly closed to tourists. The high walls and strong doors are the origin of the the word shiku men (stone gate). When this style was new, the walls jealously guarding their sliver of garden would have been much talked about.
If you are wondering why I don’t have the full door in the frame in the photo above, this photo shows you the lane in which it stands. These narrow streets make up the lilongs of old Shanghai. The lane was not wide enough for me to stand back and get the whole door into the frame, although my phone camera does have a wide angle. We walked out of the lanes into the high-rise neighbourhoods of modern Shanghai. Right opposite the exit was a large mall with three stories of food stalls near the street level, and other shops above. Life is changing rapidly in China.
Beauty is big business in Shanghai. You can’t walk very far without running into a row of hair dressers or nail artists (example above). Interestingly they are all very full. The Family is itching to go into one of them. She regrets having done her hair just before leaving Mumbai, and doesn’t take very kindly to my reminder that her hair dresser in Mumbai is also Chinese.
Tourist guides tell you to visit Xintiandi in Shanghai. This Xintiandi is full of well-preserved and tastefully renovated Shikumen buildings repurposed into restaurants, coffee shops, up-market shops and bars. When you walk through this you see the beautiful people of Shanghai and foreigners. All very posh, but exactly like any other town center in Europe. Why travel to China if all you want to see is Europe?
The Lilongs on the other side of Xintiandi are more interesting for a tourist with a camera. During my visit I saw two places where crowds had gathered. I nosed in, and saw a very serious card game in progress (photo above). In case you think this drinking and gambling is a man’s thing, think again. The next game had two women!
Luck is serious business in China. I’m told that the colour red is important because it is lucky, and not because it is beautiful.
One day in Shanghai we took the Metro to Xintiandi, walked a little way along Madang Road, and then ducked into one of the gated Shikumen-style complexes. We walked through and into lovely roads full of life. This was one of the lilongs which we wanted to see. The area is bustling with life. We arrived a little before lunch time and found many restaurants open for business, vegetable vendors, hair dressers, people playing chinese chess, smokers lounging, a quartet of beer drinkers, housewives chatting, … The photo above is a little slice of this life.
Eventually when we decided to have lunch it was smack in the middle of lunch time for the office goers who had trickled in from the businesses and malls on the main streets. With our complete lack of Chinese, it was difficult to figure out what to do. We went into one of the eateries, and one man told us to choose our food. When we did, he asked us to pay! We protested, saying we hadn’t even sat down, but he was insistent. As a queue grew behind us, and communications were not established, we left.
A little way down the road, was another establishment. There someone explained to us that you stand in the queue and order and pay for your food, then look for a table to get empty. After you sit down, the waiter will get you your food. This place had people who were very helpful and some of them spoke a little English. We made our choices by pointing at others’ plates. The owner helped us to sit down. The neighbours helped us with catching the waiter. Everyone in the lane seemed to be eating some kind of a noodle soup. We grew to like this: you can get it with all kinds of meats, or even just mushrooms. One of the girls at our table was eating a dark egg: apparently a boiled egg soaked in tea and soya: a tea egg. I tried one, liked it and had it as a snack several times later.
One question was voiced by The Family. In India a place like this would be quite dirty. How do they keep it clean in China? No answers, yet.