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Art and romance set in the style of Ye Olde England
By Wing Tan

FASHION designer Zuo Hui moved her work studio from central Shanghai to a villa in the suburban Thames Town of Songjiang District last year.

òA big reason for me being here? It?s really a quiet place, which is very good for creativity and design,ó she said. òI can fully concentrate on my work now.ó

Zuo is not alone in thinking that Thames Town is a perfect environment for business and creative thinking. Like its name suggests, the town has a vintage London feel to it, with tramcars, sculptures, cobblestone streets, Victorian terraces and corner shops.

The one-square-kilometer town, comprising an international residential complex and industrial park, is located about 30 kilometers from downtown Shanghai. It is aiming to become the city?s latest hub for the arts and culture industry.

òQuiet, clean, cozy and close to the nature, Thames Town might be the best place for artists and designers to get inspiration,ó said David Lieu, deputy general manager of Songjiang New City Construction Development and general manager of the Songjiang Cultural Creative Park. òA town of arts, creativity and romance ? that is what Songjiang Thames is going to become.ó

At the end of last year, there were 402 art industry-related companies, a fivefold increase from three years earlier. The companies generated annual sales of 5.23 billion yuan (US$837 million) in 2011, according to Lieu.

Brand-name stores that once dotted the area have mostly left.

Hub for creativity

òThey didn?t fit in with the Thames theme,ó Lieu said. òOur ultimate goal is to build the town into a center for arts and cultural creativity, instead of just another complex of office buildings. It?s a new Soho community where people can live, relax and create.ó

The town already hosts the Songjiang Art Museum, the Songjiang Urban Plan Exhibition Hall and the Songjiang New City Oil Painting Art Gallery.

The art museum has held more than 30 exhibitions and has attracted more than 200,000 visitors since 2006.

The exhibition hall offers a display of the district?s past and current development.

The art gallery is a free platform for Songjiang?s painters to show their works and a place where they can interact with visiting artists from China and abroad.

The Old Town Collection House, operating under the auspices of the Shanghai Collection Association, dazzles visitors with its array of antiques and precious art, including jade, ancient coins, bronze sculptures, porcelain vases, and traditional Chinese paintings and calligraphy.

David Hall, a teahouse and private museum, exhibits a collection of jade stones, tang san cai - tri-colored Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) glazed pottery - and pu'er tea from the southwest province of Yunnan Province.

The whole environment has become a magnet for artists.

Oil painter Wang Ronggen, a retired air force colonel, opened his Yi Gallery, which means "wings" in Chinese, in 2010. The gallery's first floor is dedicated to art exhibitions. Wang gives painting lessons one level up.

"It's my work place and a classroom," Wang said. "Visitors are welcome to visit my gallery. If they find the prices reasonable, they can buy a painting or two."

Visual and audio arts are also being encouraged to expand in the town. In order to attract companies, the local government has implemented referential policies that include a tax-free holiday for the first three years.

Devotion to culture

"There is no other place in Shanghai better than Songjiang to develop this industry," Lieu said.

Chedun Town in the district is already home to a major filmmaking center, and in nearby University Town, Fudan University has its Visual Arts College.

Shuimu Animation, Shanghai's largest animation maker, has announced plans to open an office in Thames Town. In addition, it plans to build a cartoon-themed restaurant and an amusement park.

Last November, Asian Arts Connection relocated its China headquarters to Songjiang Thames, while the German-based Franz Sandner Music Group has opened a music center in the town.

It's not only a hub for artists and designers. Thames Town is also a place for lovers.

The town is a popular spot for wedding photos. On any nice day, you can spot dozens of couples in white gowns and tuxedos, posing in the central square, in front of the cathedral or by the lake.

There are 24 companies specializing in nuptial photos in Thames Town, with sales expected to top 200 million yuan this year. An average 100 couples come here every day for wedding photos. During festivals and on weekends, the figure can climb to 300.

"The town has been a witness of romance," Lieu said, adding that wedding industry has been one of the major industries for Thames. "Thames Town has found its way and we believe it will become an emerging destination for artists and designers in the next three years," Lieu said.

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