In Shanghai, Vivienne Tam finds not only antiques shops but plenty of inspiration too
Canton-born designer Vivienne Tam has been making twice-yearly pilgrimages to Shanghai for more than two decades to find inspiration. "In the early 80's, the country was opening up and people were experimenting with new looks. They wanted to be different," Tam remembers. It was just such experimentation that propelled Tam to create some of her most iconic pieces, like her groundbreaking Mao collection, which featured silk screens by artist Zhang Hongtu. On a recent visit, Tam took T+L on a tour of her hidden Shanghai.
"There's so much talent here," says Tam, referring to the designers on Taikang Road, an up-and-coming gallery and boutique area. At Lao Shanghai (No. 5, Lane 210 Taikang Rd.; 86-21/5465-1580), run by three young artists who trained at Qinghua University's Art Academy, Tam—the daughter of Chinese opera fans—spots a dress adorned with painted opera masks. Across town, Duolun Road, the former home to Shanghai intelligentsia, is now an emerging shopping zone, lined with antiques shops and used bookstores. At Guo Chunxiang Family Collection (179-181 Duolun Rd.; 86-21/5696-3948), the memorabilia includes retro vinyl Chairman Mao and Lin Biao buttons; Laiyin Art Garden (158 Duolun Rd.; 86-21/5671-5506) has a collection of Shanghai Deco lampshades. Another favorite: Chinese Classics Bookstore (424-440 Fuzhou Rd.; 86-21/6322-0825), where Tam snaps up reproductions of communist-era comic books and an artist's backpack that fits a sketch pad and a portable easel.
At the sprawling Old City God's Temple market, Tam leads the way past stands selling paper lanterns, tea, and painted fans to the Nan Fang Curio Market (69 Jiuxiaochang Rd.), where vintage clothing abounds. Stalls No. 32 and 33 carry cheongsams in Art Deco prints and a Qing dynasty skirt with embroidered medallions that Tam just has to have. It is here that Tam imparts the first rule of bargaining: "Walk away," she whispers. "If you're lucky, the sellers run after you, but if they don't, you can't go back because then they double the price. But like anything worthwhile, sometimes you have to risk losing it."
Going to the Source
Tam often incorporates elements from traditional crafts into her clothing. The dusty, one-room Chinese Hand-Printed Blue Nankeen Exhibition Hall (No. 24, Lane 637 Changle Rd.; 86-21/ 5403-7947) displays samples of batik dating back to the 1890's. All the tools of dyeing are on display, from wooden printing blocks to wax-paper cutouts. Tam, who has translated the designs into black-and-white embroidery, is this time drawn to the wax overlay on the fabric before it's dyed. "I love the white-on-white texture and patterns—so subtle."
"One of my favorite souvenirs is the hand- tinted wedding photographs from the Cultural Revolution. I love the red cheeks! I had my own picture done in the early 1980's just to see what it would look like," says Tam, as she strikes a pose at Wangkai Photography Shop (378 Nanjing East Rd.; 86-21/6322-1098), which still produces the hand-painted pictures. The studio is filled with evening gowns, bridal dresses, even a Korean costume for women who want to dress up like Korean soap star Lee Young-ae. But Tam doesn't need to borrow an outfit: she's brought her own black metallic organza cocktail dress.
In 1918, Wing On was one of four Nanjing Road department stores that helped define Shanghai as the Paris of the Far East. Now it houses Xian Qiang Fang (600 Jiujiang Rd.; 86-21/ 6351-5757; dinner for two $50), which is a perfect balance of old and new, with its green-marble vestibule and Art Deco dining room. In Shanghai tradition, patrons are treated to a show of Chinese opera and Suzhou folk songs while shrimp is cooked at the table over a bowl of hot rocks. Tam gently mimics the performers' hand movements. "It feels like an old Chinese movie." She can't get over the design of Dongbeiren (1 Shaanxi South Rd.; 86-21/ 5228-9898; dinner for two $38), which celebrates the Chinese Northeast, with shucks of dried corn at the entrance. "They carried the idea through every single detail," she says. The food is equally dramatic: stewed lamb shanks still on the bone are stacked like firewood.