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The Shikumen of Shanghai

Article by Narina Exelby 06.12.2018 Photography by Frédéric Lagrange

Within Shanghai’s sleek city walls lies a cluster of enclaves that seem frozen in time, where traditional architecture — and a more traditional way of life — has survived the wave of modernization. These are the city’s shikumen lane communities.

A shikumen is a two- or three-story townhouse, often with a second-floor balcony, fronted by a walled courtyard that is entered through a high stone gate adorned with a stylistic arch. These homes, so characteristic of Shanghai, are essentially British-style row houses with a Chinese twist. The residential lane itself is known as a lilong or longtang.

“There’s nothing quite like a classic Shanghai-style lane neighborhood,” says Patrick Cranley, president and co founder of Historic Shanghai. “They are self-enclosed urban residential blocks designed to create a close-knit community that you feel as soon as you enter: a unique combination of privacy and public transparency at the same time. While these lanes are quite hidden, the residents all know each other well — and know each other’s family affairs, like it or not!” Above, a resident inside a shikumen on Maoming Road, a main thoroughfare in Old Shanghai.

Many shikumens have received a face-lift in recent years to bring them into the modern world. During the Taiping Rebellion (1850–64), merchants hastily constructed shikumens to accommodate refugees who poured into the city from Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces. The installation of sewage systems in the 1920s improved things, but overcrowding peaked during World War II, when 80 percent of Shanghai’s population called these tenements home. During the Cultural Revolution (1966 76), many influential families left their lane homes, which were then subdivided and filled to the brim.

Jing’an Villa is a rare example of a living, breathing shikumen community that has (so far) been spared modernization. This textbook lilong stretches across several blocks and exists in the shadow of the shopping emporiums and mushrooming skyscrapers of Jing’an.

The labyrinthine network of alleys that comprises Tianzifang has gotten as close as any major shikumen development to achieving the ideal of “gentrification from within.” “Original residents are naturally pushed by familial, health-related and economic forces to move out,” says Non Arkaraprasertkul, an anthropologist and architect. “New residents are pulled in by various reasons, including their central locations and opportunities for business. The lilong communities that allow this process to take place naturally are usually the ones that are socially diverse, economically viable and culturally attractive.”

In the renovated Tianzifang neighborhood, artists and entrepreneurs have built a thriving creative center with more than 200 small businesses, from arts and crafts stores to an array of coffeehouses, bars and eateries. Visitors sit in stylish cafés or peruse locally made qipao dresses in shops set in old revamped lane houses. Above, the popular Jian Fen Shi Jia dress shop in Tianzifang.

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