I have been longtime in clinch with the Chinese mega city. Too big, too crowded, too artificial. Shanghai was my synonym for a typical modern China civilization that would extinct each historic part to make room for new, faceless and interchangeable skyscrapers. In other words, I felt that the city had no soul, no origin. So I was glad to discover during my last trip, that there still are relics of those original neighborhoods (hutongs) which I fell in love with in Beijing already.
Shanghai talks money. Wherever you´ll look, the city bursts with constructions, traffic and business people. One skyscraper after the other pops up into the sky just like in a Tetris game, the city suffocates in traffic and people rush around like ants in their anthill. Just like any other modern metropolis, Shanghai is a great example of how wealthy one can get or what it is like to live in poverty in one of the world´s most important economic centers.
I always felt that with all the growing fortune and power, the locals sold off their cultural heritage bit by bit. Like someone selling his soul to the devil. And maybe I was wrong because I may have focused too much on the evident visual change in the cityscape, but it might also be that the people may have realized that the future can never exist without the past. And that a livable world-class city should co-exist historical areas with newly developed ones.
One of my Chinese co-workers, which I had a long talk to during my watch on a previous Hong Kong flight, had directed my attention to a certain area in Shanghai that sounded similar in architecture and layout to the historic residential areas of Beijing, the so-called Hutongs. I had actually not expected to find something like this in Shanghai at all, so once I had taken a well-deserved nap after the flight into Pudong International Airport, I grabbed my best friend´s hand and we took of to find this hidden gem.
Easy to reach by metro (Dapuqiao station, Line 9) Tian Zi Fang offers narrow alleyways with lots of beautiful, little boutiques, galleries and cafés to explore.
Even though the district does seem a bit tuned in terms of authenticity, it was a pleasure to explore the nooks and crannies of the little side streets, studded with shops focusing on local handicrafts and souvenirs. This is where I found myself a beautiful photography at one of the galleries to take home as a souvenir.
Tian Zi Fang is a great example of the city’s shikumen architecture, a blend of traditional Chinese courtyard houses and Western-style row houses. Making wandering into Shanghai’s historic neighborhoods especially easy. Long alleyways between houses are a hallmark of the buildings there.
While researching, I found that most of these neighborhoods were demolished when Shanghai started to quickly urbanize in the 1980s. But the remaining ones date back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and are unique to the city.
Luckily, local governments had understood that in favor of successful tourism, they had to place roughly 200 of the old neighborhoods on a preservation list. Some buildings have been earmarked for renovation as Shanghai prepares to submit them for UNESCO world-heritage status. And this is where I found my peace with the city.
Not far from here, we took the chance to check out XinTianDi (XinTianDi station, Lines 10/13). You can either take a 30 minutes walk or a taxi to hop over from Tian Zi Fang.
This trendy district is composed of an area of reconstituted traditional mid-19th century shikumen (“stone gate”) houses on narrow alleys, some adjoining houses which now serve as book stores, cafes and restaurants, and shopping malls.
It is considered one of the first lifestyle centers in China. It is also the most expensive place to live in China, with some apartments costing more than Tokyo, New York and London. It is home to the Chinese elite and top executive expats. I wonder why? 🙂
The urban renewal is considered one of the first examples of the placemaking approach in China. Of course, this called for drastic actions: This construction displaced 3,500 Shanghainese families.
Even though XinTianDi is a picturesque Disneyland scenery, I found it a bit fake and out-of-place for my taste. A Rodeo Drive for the rich and not really a “good” example of what the real life is like in Shanghai. Nevertheless, I would still recommend to visit as a contrast program.
After all this exploration, we urgently were in need of a typical Chinese massage in the evening. It was a fun day and I was completely relieved to finally have found an approach to a city that I had disliked for a long time. Proved, that you shall always give a second chance, sometimes even a third one. I will be coming back for more!