Layers of Time in Tianzifang
“It’s all changing fast now. It is getting too expensive for locals to live or run a business here”
the bartender says with sadness in his voice as we tell how delighted we are of this fascinating labyrinth of Tianzifang in Shanghai’s French Concession.
Waves of visitors at the narrow alleys in the afternoon may feel exhausting at times and then it’s a good idea to pop into any of the many side alley bars for a drink or two, talk with the staff and go through your notes and re-read the guidebook’s description of the place.
Tianzifang’s traditional, residental Shikumen houses from the 1930’s and red brick factories were saved from being demolished about ten years ago (Shanghainese artists rallied to save them and succeeded) and these days the alleys are filled with art stores and artist studios, tea houses, restaurants, cafes, craft shops and boutiques.
The upper floors are still homes, laundry is hanging outside the windows and there are polite signs asking for people to lower voices and respect the privacy of the people living in Tianzifang.
Tianzifang is not too polished, the original appearance of the buildings has a lot of character, despite the crowds in the day time you can imagine life here in the 1930’s.
Especially the quiet corners, ends of alleys are feeding imagination. Shanghai is changing fast and preservation of Tianzifang’s cultural heritage is significant, the layers of time in Shanghai can still be experienced here.
Sadly though, becoming a popular destination for Shanghai visitors means the area has also lured a lot of international businesses, bit by bit this may cause the area lose it’s original spirit and charm.
Everything has become more expensive as well, the trend that affect’s local residents and businesses alike. This is what the bartender was talking about. Tricky it is, development.
Tianzifang will get it’s own post later, but it was highlighted here because of the surprising contrast it offers in the city of Shanghai that thrills visitors with all the skyscrapers, trendy shopping centers, technology, speed, futuristic angles. This was one of the reasons we, before leaving for Shanghai, had a lot of discussions of what we expected on the vibes level of this city that appears to change in the speed of light. Can you still find the layers of time? We went through YouTube videos, blog posts, newspaper articles, travel mags. We tried to combine all that with the guide book information and our own expectations of this megacity on the Yangtze River Delta.
“I knew that Shanghai is about the most futuristic destinations now. Development is and has been faster than you’d ever imagine for the past 20+ years. During my university studies in the late 1990’s I studied Chinese (Mandarin) and quite a lot of the history, culture and lifestyle of China. Ever since I have followed the development of this country with a great interest. Based on what I’ve learned of the city’s heart beat, I can very well understand how Shanghai gathers all kinds of people from all the corners of the world these days, just like before the Cultural Revolution. Last year we visited Hong Kong and Macau – and we enjoyed these visits a lot. Visiting the Dragon’s Head was next on the list.
When planning our trip, Shanghai in my mind had this etheral cloud of mystery around it. It must be the memories of the high school history lessons and old black and white movies that have fed my imagination.
I remembered the stories of the distant, thrilling port city in the 1800’s, the Opium Wars. The old photos of the 1920’s and 1930’s when the city was one of the cities to see and be seen in. The Paris of the East lured foreigners from all around the world – when the Great Depression depressed the Occident, Orient was swinging.
Movers and shakers, hustlers and adventurers, rich & the famous. Socialites, heiresses, wannabe personalities, swindlers, parasites.
Business of all sorts, legal and the shady ones, for sure thrived. But during those heydays the city was also about jazz, exotic lifestyles, glamour, fashion, trends, endless, lavish parties, decadence. The 1920’s advertisements with the “modern woman”, in beautiful, tight qipao dress, wearing lipstick and smoking a cigarette. And I hoped that somewhere, in the midst of the trendsetting beats and styles of this megalopolis I’d get even a little glimpse into the times gone by.”
This is what Pekka thought:
“I really enjoyed Hong Kong and Macau last year. The area is such a dynamic, never sleeping, efficient. To get in to the mood of Shanghai I have found out about the modern, the latest stuff the city of Shanghai has to offer just to understand what are all those awesome things this city has developed while the rest of us in the world have been mostly picking our noses. Seriously.
If you look at the scale of the development from mid 90’s to these days, wow. The documentaries we saw of building the sky scrapers, the development of the business in so many industries. This city has boomed past all expectations. The lesson? Don’t listen to those who predict, just do your thing.
Challenges the speed has brought and will bring those in the future as well for sure. Finding a balance between the fast paced development, humanity, old cultural traditions and environment is not an easy puzzle. But making stuff happen is the mantra here and a lot of it is for good.”
What was the reality?
What did we experience, feel, see, hear, smell, taste, sense? Stay tuned, we will post fun stories and useful tips of our trip. Did we like Shanghai? We loved it. Will we return? For sure. You go now too, it may be too late to find the old Shanghai later.