Is Jing'an Villa the new Tianzifang?

Is Jing'an Villa the new Tianzifang?

With Tianzifang discovered by tourists, Jing’an Villa is unexpectedly becoming the new 'secret' corner of the city

Jing'an Villa gatesWelcome to Jing'an Villa. Entrepreneurs willing to take down their store signs at a moment's notice welcome.Step through a pair of unembellished dark gates off busy shopping artery Nanjing Xi Lu, and you’ll find yourself in Jing’an Villa, a serene shikumen complex where octogenarians and bohemian café-cum-craft stores sit side by side.

But many say that a hidden lane such as this won’t stay secret for long, especially in Shanghai, where a central-yet-quiet spot away from the masses is much needed.

Since last July, new stores have started to spring up in the area, breeding speculation that the place will soon become the new Tianzifang -- along with all the positive and negative connotations that have become associated with it.

Although Tianzifang is now a booming area, loved by many in the city, it has also been discovered by tourists; it's overcrowded and rent hikes have forced out resident artists and locals alike, the very people who made the area. As Jing'an Villa fills up, many wonder if the small lane will suffer a similar fate.

A lane with a story

“I hope it won’t become more popular than this,” says Wu Xingfu, 40, the founder of GZ Café and the area’s first commercial tenant when he opened in August 2007. “It would ruin the quiet, Old Shanghai feel of the neighborhood, which was the very reason why we chose this space.”

Before Wu moved in, the only businesses around were the handful of mom-and-pop hairdressers, tailors and grocery stalls that mainly served the area’s residents.

This is a good place for fresh graduates who have a good idea and are trying to be entrepreneurial ... As long as they don’t disturb the neighbors, young people should be encouraged to realize their dreams.— Xu Tianxiong, owner of Denny House at number 128 in Jing'an Villa

The complex’s calm atmosphere belies its rich history.

Writer Eileen Chang used to hang out at cafés just across the road, and scenes from the movie version of her book, “Lust, Caution” starring Tony Leung, were filmed here.

The site was initially a burial ground for the Chaozhou clan; later British residents stabled their horses here; in the 1920s it was purchased by Zhang Jingjiang, a wealthy tycoon from Nanxun county in northern Zhejiang.

The Zhangs built Jing’an Villa as it stands today in 1932, and it subsequently housed wealthy Western heads of foreign companies, as well as high-profile politicians, movie directors, doctors and educators.

Many of the prominent Shanghainese families moved away during the Cultural Revolution, and most of the houses were partitioned into smaller flats occupied by multiple families. Residents can still be seen nowadays cooking or chatting along the streets in the evening.

Jing’an Villa’s modern incarnation

“It’ll be better than Tianzifang,” says Ray Mao, 30, who opened Cute Stuff at number 168 in Jing'an Villa last September, but who also runs a Miao handicraft store in Tianzifang.

Shoppers and shop owners alike echo his views, pointing to the complex’s neatly arranged network of broad alleys, its downtown location and accessibility by public transport.

“All the customers here now are mainly friends of the shop owners, who all have day jobs on the side and are just running their shops as a hobby -- we are not too concerned about making money,” says Juny Lau, 26, who owns wine bar Grape at number 33 and also runs a wine distribution business by day.

Chabrol Café, for example, is a cinema-themed café run by a group of designers and film buffs, while Vale at number 192 is a eat-in pasta joint run by a pasta importer.

“I hope we will have more of such shops,” says oil painter Steven Zheng, 26, who conducts art classes in his second-floor studio at number 12. “If people want shops selling mass-produced goods, they can find them on Nanjing Lu, we have no need for more of them inside here.”

Noisy businesses that run late into the night, those that leave too much clutter in the alleys and restaurants that produce grease and waste likely to attract vermin, are similarly unwelcome say the area’s residents.

Jing'an Villa -- woman on bikeA Jing'an Villa resident examines official notices for the neighborhood. Question is, who's going to follow the rules?

Operating in a gray area

Jing’an Villa is currently still designated as a residential neighborhood, therefore most shops are running without licenses, despite having been mentioned openly in many local paper and magazines. This explains why most of the shops don’t have obvious shop fronts and many have detachable signboards.

Last year, rumors circulated among shop owners that the government was planning to step in to manage the place. However, after the big Jiaozhou Lu fire in November 2010, fire safety regulations came under the spotlight throughout the city and coupled with a spike in Jing'an Villa residents’ complaints about the clutter generated by the commercial enterprises, many believed that the government eventually ditched any plans it had for the area.

Although much has been discussed about fire safety in the area, a blaze recently swept though Jing’an Villa. On a much smaller scale than the Jiaozhou Lu fire, and while no lives were lost, the fire caused fairly extensive property damage to the lane.

I hope [Jing'an Villa] won’t become more popular than this. It would ruin the quiet, Old Shanghai feel of the neighborhood.— Wu Xingfu, founder of GZ Cafe

Shortly after Lunar New Year, shop owners reported increased police spot checks in the area, sometimes as often as twice a day. Signboards were quickly taken down and doors shut each time policemen were spotted entering the lanes.

“If there were customers who wanted to stay and finish their coffee, we’d just tell the cops that they’re our friends,” says a café owner, who declined to be named.

Rent and regulations

“The government should step in to regulate [here] -- they can then classify what kinds of businesses pose disturbances to residents and are forbidden,” says Wanderers Café’s Kevin Liu, 36.

“With government involvement, authorities can also consider offering the residents some compensation to soothe their complaints about the disturbances,” adds long-time resident Yao Huaming, 57.

But others think the government should stay out of it.

“As long as the government is not involved, creativity can flourish here,” says Nicole Teng, 34, of Plum Studio.

The Taiwan native first opened art gallery Plum Gallery two years ago, but relocated to a bigger shop space at number 59 in Jing'an Villa where she re-opened her space calling it Plum Studio and now invites guest artists to conduct classes. Rents have more than doubled in two years, she says.

Jingan Villa -- denny houseNever too old to work in a start-up 61-year-old Xu Tianxiong, runs Denny House in Jing'an Villa, a start-up set up by his son three years ago.According to Ken Chan, who started iLost cafe in the complex two years ago, but has since relocated to Shaoxing Lu, uneven rent rises have bred jealousy among neighbors, particularly between those on upper floors and the ground floor, which can command much higher prices.

Rents for ground-floor apartments with patios average RMB 7,000 a month, while smaller studio apartments on the upper floors cost around RMB 1,000, says a property agent who specializes in the area.

Rents are still generally low. Commercial rents on adjacent Nanjing Xi Lu and Weihai Lu are at least RMB 8,000 a month for a small store front.

“[Jing'an Villa] is a good place for fresh graduates who have a good idea and are trying to be entrepreneurial as rents outside are too expensive -- as long as they don’t disturb the neighbors, young people should be encouraged to realize their dreams,” says Xu Tianxiong, 61, who runs Denny House at number 128, a café set up by his 30-year-old son three years ago.

Not all of the areas residents are so aspirational. Some businesses are just looking to cash in on the area’s growing human traffic, according to Chabrol Café’s Sophie Pan.

She handles almost daily queries from customers looking for a potential shop space in the area. Karaoke lounges, noisy bars and even a tanning salon were some of the ideas raised, all of which she tried to discourage as they didn't fit with the area’s relaxed vibe.

“Given its central location and the well-preserved state of the buildings, [Jing'an Villa is] a profitable place and still has potential for lots more,” says tailor Meng Junhua, 50, who has been running his business out of his bedroom for more than 15 years.

If people want shops selling mass-produced goods, they can find them on Nanjing Lu, we have no need for more of them inside here.— Steven Zheng, artists and art teacher at number 12 Jing'an Villa

Jing’an Villa looks ahead

Although the neighborhood is stable now, what if the area’s future development plans include eviction of current, unlicensed businesses?

“If have to move then I guess I have to, what can I do?” Meng says without revealing any emotion. “I don’t go to these shops anyway, their price range is too high for any of the residents here,” he adds, a sentiment shared by several other residents.

But Chabrol’s Pan believes otherwise.

“There’s a generation of older Shanghainese we refer to as the lao kele,” she says. “They can speak some English and are familiar with the coffee culture from when Shanghai was an international city in the 1930s, so they appreciate the revived neighborhood.”

And for many of these residents, the new shops allow them to observe the foreign trends that are again taking root in this increasingly globalized city.

“My elderly neighbors upstairs sometimes call and ask if we serve pasta too, because they’ve heard others talking about it and want to try it out,” Pan adds with a laugh. “I hope people will be more open-minded about what this place will become, and let it evolve naturally instead of expecting it to be the next Tianzifang or Xintiandi.”

Debbie Yong is a former newspaper journalist whose bad case of itchy feet has brought her across continents in search of an education. The native Singaporean was an English Literature undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, a postgraduate student at the London School of Economics, and is currently completing her Masters at Shanghai’s Fudan University.
Read more about Debbie Yong