The district comprises a neighborhood of labyrinthine alleyways off Taikang Road (Chinese: 泰康路; pinyin: Tàikāng Lù), and is therefore also referred to as Taikang Road or Taikang Lu. Tianzifang is known for small craft stores, coffee shops, trendy art studios and narrow alleys. It has become a popular tourist destination in Shanghai, and an example of preservation of local Shikumen architecture, with some similarities to Xintiandi.
Tianzifang is largely hidden from the neighbouring streets, as it grew from the inside of the block outward, although there are now shops on Taikang Lu itself. Historically Lane #248 was a key entrance that, in order to gain access to the commercially developed area, required walking about 50m through whilst be surrounded by local residents' life, including bicycles, hanging laundry, etc. until finally emerging in the 'new' area.
The neighborhood was originally built in the 1930s as a Shikumen residential district. It remained very local until about 2006 when it was slated for demolition to make way for redevelopment. Opposition among local business owners and residents, as well as a famous artist Chen Yifei who had a studio in Tianzifang, in addition to a group submitted a proposal to the local government to preserve the Taikang Lu area and its traditional architecture and ambience.
Rezoning of Tianzifang began in 2005/2006 with nearby art schools and studios, and later small international business owners found out about Tianzifang through the local grapevine. Its development began very slowly with local merchants, a New Zealand store, Japanese restaurants, and a tea house setting up in the district.
From the beginning of 2007, journalists, visitors and local residents began to visit the area and spread the word about a cosy little lane district that housed some interesting and creative businesses. Additional articles in both local and foreign media such as the New York Times helped increase awareness of this older and unusual community, that stood out among the more modern and commercial shopping areas of Shanghai.
Tianzifang has become a major tourist attraction and has more than 200 diverse small businesses such as cafes, bars, restaurants, art galleries, craft stores, design houses and studios, and even French bistros. It is adjacent to the SML center which is among the largest shopping malls in Shanghai upon completion. It is also near the Shanghai Metro Line 9's Dapuqiao Station which is immediately to the south.
Despite all the businesses selling trendy foreign goods, the area does not have the look of having been overly beautified - electricity cables are still strung overhead, and air conditioning units are obvious on the outside of the buildings. The district is distinctly different from Xintiandi, another Shikumen redevelopment in the vicinity to the north, in that it has managed to preserve its residential feel, adding to its appeal.