Creative hub painted into a corner
2016-07-08, YU RAN

The scene along Taikang Road in Shanghai today is a far cry from what it was two decades ago.

Home to the arts and crafts area of Tianzifang, the road is now filled with retail outlets, snack shops, bars and cafes — most of which are occupied by tourists from other Chinese cities and abroad.

Located in the heart of Shanghai and known for its labyrinth of alleys, Tianzifang was created where abandoned factories from the 1940s and historical shikumen “stone gate” residential buildings from the 1920s once stood.

Yu Hai, a professor of sociology at Fudan University who has studied the Tianzifang area since its inception as an arts enclave nearly 20 years ago, said it is a shame the true charm of the area has been lost in the modernization process.

It was once a place where people could savor the essence of old Shanghai, and became a community for people from the creative industries. But today, it is just another tourist attraction that only retains a faint glimmer of its artistic core.

“Tianzifang has over the years faced a struggle to gather artists, designers and creative businessmen. Those who are in the area now are also planning to move out,” said Yu, who recently led a team of students from Fudan and Tongji universities to conduct an in-depth survey of the area.

“This should be a place for people to trace back the old times in Shanghai, not filled with shops and restaurants,” he added.

Zheng Rongfa, the former administrative head of the Dapuqiao area, which Taikang Road is under, recalled how Tianzifang was once a vibrant place filled with the sounds and smells coming from the homes of Shanghai families.

“There used to be an outdoor wet market where housewives would haggle over the price of live chickens in the morning. Many men would smoke cigarettes and play poker on tables in the courtyard in the afternoon,” said Zheng, who is widely regarded as the “father of Tianzifang”.

In 1998, Zheng began a project to turn the area into a hub for art and culture. He leased out the 10,000-square-meter space occupied by the disused factories on a 20-year contract and moved the street market indoors.

In 1999, Chen Yifei, a renowned Chinese painter, and several other artists set up studios in the old factories on Lane 210 along Taikang Road, creating a cluster of more than 200 culture and art venues. This was also when Huang Yongyu, another well-known painter, named the area Tianzifang as a tribute to an ancient Chinese painter of the same name.

One year later, the subdistrict government leased the remaining spaces to a sole proprietor named Wu Meisheng. Galleries, cafes and boutiques opened alongside old Shanghai homes, imbuing the area with a unique charm.

In 2004, Tianzifang nearly became a victim of the city’s relentless modernization. Calls were made for the district to be torn down to make way for high-rise shopping malls.

Fortunately, thanks to the intervention of Zheng and a group of his supporters, Tianzifang emerged unscathed.

According to statistics provided by Yu, 100 million square meters of old buildings in Shanghai were torn down between the early 1990s and 2008 to make way for modern ones. However, the Shanghai government has also tried to preserve some of the city’s traditional architecture, turning many old estates into zones for creative industries.

Following the close shave in 2004, Zheng realized residents from neighboring lanes could band together to help expand the size of Tianzifang to boost the significance of the area.

Renovation works were also planned to give the rustic zone a new lease of life.

“This led to a shift from the residential to nonresidential use of space in Tianzifang and the local residents were quick to join the effort,” said Zheng.

Zhou Xinliang was one of the first to lend support. In September 2004, he leased his 33-square-meter room on Lane 210 to a fashion designer.

However, he said he did so only because the 3,500 yuan ($525) he charged for rent would go a long way in helping with his living expenses, as he was only getting 300 yuan per month from his pension.

While the interiors of many of the buildings were renovated, the old brick facades from which Tianzifang gets its charm were left intact.

The face-lift was a success and Tianzifang buzzed with activity. Middle-aged housewives carrying bags of vegetables would squeeze past expats sipping cappuccino at outdoor cafes.

Then, in 2008, the government took over Tianzifang and shifted the focus from developing the place as an art and culture hub to commercialization, security and property management.

As one of the first shop owners to arrive on Lane 274 in 2007, Yan Hongliang, who sells ceramic art designed and produced in Jingdezhen, in East China’s Jiangxi province, has witnessed the tremendous changes that have taken place since.

The one that made the most impact is rent.

At the beginning, Yan paid around 6,000 yuan a month for his 60-sq-m shop. He now pays 40,000 yuan and said that the rent for the shop is likely to exceed 60,000 yuan when his current contract expires in two years.

“The pressure caused by the booming real estate market has sped up the commercialization of Tianzifang. The place is now filled with more tourism-related items instead of original artworks,” said Yan, adding that he plans to move out of Tianzifang after completing his rental contract despite his attachment to the area.

According to Yu from Fudan University, there are currently 586 shops in the area. Over the past five years, retail outlets have steadily replaced the art studios and galleries, which now account for just 2 percent of the shops in Tianzifang.

Yu said that the exodus of artists is the biggest problem of Tianzifang right now. Though he does not think that this will lead to the demise of the place, he is concerned that it will eventually result in a change of appearance and the loss of its iconic architecture.

“It is time to preserve the nostalgic elements of Tianzifang with the help of government, which should move to control the rising rent, encourage more creative talent to move in, and support further development,” he said.

Fabienne Wallenwein, a German doctoral student on an exchange program at Fudan University, shares this sentiment.

“To me, these traditional residential areas are highly valuable because they help maintain a lifestyle that is unique to Chinese cities, whereas the modern lifestyle of globalized cities can be found in other metropolises around the globe,” she said.

In the meantime, Zheng, the “father” of the area, said he can only hope that the government thinks the same way about the future direction of Tianzifang’s development.

“If the authorities can implement restrictions regarding the types of business that can exist in Tianzifang and provide artists with subsidies, this place can once again become a vibrant cultural hub,” he said.

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