Jing’an Villa: Not Just Another Tianzifang

Our group made a tour to Jing’an Villa, one of the traditional urban alley-communities in Shanghai. The picturesque neighborhood is just off the West Nanjing Road, the very center of Shanghai. Jing’an Villa was built around 1930s as the housing for employees of British Companies in Shanghai. At that time, Jing’an Villa represented a new lifestyle for the upper middle class. The area has preserved the old Shanghai feel of the neighborhood. In a 弄堂(longtang) neighborhood, a group of houses are connected by the lane. In the public lane area, longtang residents usually hang their clothes, play Mahjong, and talk to their neighbors. The public lane area has not only become gathering places but also formed communities for residents.

Around five years ago, Jing’an Villa has attracted a number of artists, who opened studios there because of its central location and cheap rent. Later, many cafes, restaurants, and crafts stores also started business in the villa. However, most of these shops were unlicensed businesses. Last year, the government shut down all the stores there during a crackdown against illegal businesses in the residential area. During our trip, we got a chance to talk to some of the former café shop owners in the Villa, and asked about their opinions about the crackdown. One of former owners felt that the crackdown was unfair, since Tianzifang, another old longtang neighborhood that converted to businesses area, was also in the residential area, but the government did not shut down businesses in Tianzifang.

I, however, really enjoyed Jing’an Villa as the way it is right now without all the businesses. Without all the stores, and cafes at the first floor of the building units, the area has successfully preserved slices of Old Shanghai life, and the longtang remained to be the community for residents there. If, however, government did not shut down all the stores, I think Jing’an Villa would be highly commercialized. In fact, the commercialization process actually started even before the crackdown, as the former café owner complained about how the rental rates skyrocketed over the past two years. But by shutting down all the stores, Jing’an Villa did not become just another touristy and commercialized Tianzifang.

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The Longtang of Jing’an Villa

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Street Maps of Jing’an Villa before the crackdown