Tianzifang, Shanghai: Tourism-Retail At Its Best
Those that know me can attest that ‘tourism’ related retail is not my general personal leisure preference. Although shopping is the number one tourism related activity, I like to stay a step ahead of that crowd and limit my purchases to strategic duty free acquisitions. That said, there are a few special destinations that I am a sucker for such as Tianzifang in Shanghai.
Tianzifang is a compact, dense retail district comprised of a maze of 1930s era passageways and laneways lined with tiny boutique stores, art galleries, restaurants and bars. Now home to over 200 businesses, you can easily spend hours exploring this eclectic neighbourhood. Although Tianzifang only became a full fledged retail district in 2006, it still somehow manages to feel authentic.
Virtually all of the stores, restaurants, and cafes in Tianzifang are independently run (or operated by small chains that westerners would never recognize). From bars with only 6 stools, to artist run galleries, stores selling Mao-era relics, or odd restaurants such as More Then Toilet, there is little sense of predictability and blandness. This hodgepodge of retailers creates an organically grown experience where one can taste, smell, touch and feel their surroundings, encouraging visitors to linger and explore.
Fine Grained Streetscapes
Many retailers in Tianzifang are smaller than 200 sq. ft., with some occupying just a 2 foot depth of a small wall space. Tiny restaurants have stairs leading to rooftop bars, or make liberal use of common areas for seating. To save on space, cooking in many restaurants happens in some distant hidden location and orders are radioed in by walkie-talkie.
Intimate Public Spaces
Internal passageways are rarely wider than 12 feet, and at many moments you find yourself turning sideways to dodge protruding merchandise and locals slowly rolling through on scooters. The intimate proportions are comfortable, however, rather than be the stressful kind of intense chaos that can drive visitors away.
The line between private and public space is beyond blurred. In one moment you are being served a meal in the middle of a plaza, in the next you are using a double-fronted store as a shortcut to your next destination. No one really seems to mind.
A Relaxed Environment
For visitors, Shanghai can seem like a stressful place – a feeling that is amplified in standard tourist destinations. Tianzifang is oddly calm and peaceful in comparison. I suspect there is an unwritten (or perhaps written) rule that leaves tourists unharassed, allowing them to shop at their own pace.
I have visited Tianzifang multiple times over the past few years trying to distil what makes this place so attractive. Ultimately, I think the answer is fairly straight forward. Tianzifang offers visitors the ability to explore an environment which is both exciting and new, but also safe and relaxed. Adding to this sense of adventure is the aura of authenticity created by the historic architecture, varied tenant mix, and fine grained storefronts. And if this description isn’t convincing, I can assure you that the retailers in Tianzifang have been able to gently coax significantly more money out of myself and my fellow coworkers than all the flashy and exuberant malls in China combined.
Photo album is borrowed from GoAlexia.com where an excellent post can be found comparing Tianzifang with Xintiandi, a similar but more commercialized retail district in Shanghai.