The diversity of design in shikumen headers

What makes a shikumen (石库门) header an architectural tapestry so emblematic of Shanghai?

The grey stone pediment, shaped in a triangle or semi-circle, contains designs that range from the simple to the elaborate. In their heyday, headers (and the width of lanes) reflected the economic class of the neighborhood. Some lanes had cookie cutter European flower designs stamped overhead in narrow alleys, other lanes enjoyed beautiful and intricate carvings that more well-off residents enjoyed. The most unique are standalone shikumens that captured the spirit and influence of a household, with carefully chosen symbols of peaches for longevity or an elephant to signify wisdom.

I have always wondered how the shikumen lanes was designed in the 1920s to 30s. Was there a catalogue that architects and planners showed to their prospective clients to pick and choose. Maybe it was entirely at their discretion and judgement of what was fashionable. A lion on top, flowers framing the pediment or stars stamped into the columns of the entrance. Blend Chinese and European symbols into a hodgepodge of superstition and aesthetics, carved out entirely in stone.

For years, readers flocked to this blog to learn more about shikumens and lilongs. I’ve always wanted to write a substantive overview to share the many beautiful facets of this vernacular architecture. But I thought this selection will serve us well, a reminder of the diversity of shikumens but a bittersweet reminder of how fast they are disappearing. So go out and explore and share, share with all of us.

Below, one of my favorite cul de sacs off Kongjia Nong (孔家弄) or Confucius Lane in Old Town.

Shikumen 03

It’s impossible to miss how Art Deco is woven into Shanghai’s architectural landscape, from the iconic Peace Hotel on the Bund to the modern interpretation in form of the Jinmao Tower in Pudong. We also see them in beautiful old apartments like the Astrid on Nanchang Lu (南昌路) or the Georgia Apartments on Hengshan Lu (衡山路). But my favorite is the application of Deco motifs in Shanghai’s lilongs. Did native residents in the 1930s, as shikumens were built extensively across the city, find the design modern and novel? Did they feel an affinity to the landmark tall buildings dotting the International and French concessions? I’ve previously written about the influence of Art Deco design in Shanghai’s shikumen.

Shikumen Entrance Facade Art Deco 01

This repainted shikumen header is located in Wangyima Lane (王医马弄), one of the oldest lanes in Old Town dating back to the 13th century. The elephant in the shikumen header is regarded as a symbol of wisdom and wealth, and in this case, represents a prominent and illustrious career.

“According to one source, a certain Wang (王) was a veterinary doctor (yi 医) specializing in treating horses (ma 马); he lived here in the Song era and evidently was famous for his skill. Horses were used primarily for official dispatches, so it is no surprise that Wang’s practice would be so close to the seat of government (magistrate’s yamen) and the city temple.”

Elephant Shikumen

See these guardian lions (石獅) playfully poised with their paws on a decorated ball. Above the arch rests two small European gables. Jiuan Fang (久安坊) or very loosely translated “Long Peace Compound”, is an excellent example of new-styled shikumen lilong housing located near Yuyuan Garden.

Shikumen Header 04Jiuan Fang 久安坊  01

Located a few blocks south of the affluent shopping cluster that is Xintiandi, Chengyu Lane (成裕里) (or Achieving Abundance Lane) was part of a large swathe of lilong housing demolished from 2013 to 2015 to accommodate the roll out of high-end malls and office buildings that now take its place. The shikumen headers are modest, simple rectangular frames with simple flower motifs.

Its modesty captures subtle threads of Communist history. It was in Chengyu Lane that Chen Duxiu (陈独秀) (1879–1942), one of two founding members of the CCP and an early student of Karl Marx’s works, assembled a printing press in House no. 12 to produce the first Chinese copy of The Communist Manifesto in 1920.

Printing of Communist Manifesto 03Printing of Communist Manifesto 01

The clean and modern Deco style seems at odd with the very traditional Wooden Bridge Street or muqiaojie (木桥街), just a few turns lanes away from Fangbang Lu (方濱路), once the beating heart running through Old Town. The header might not look like much but the motif runs through the sweep of the window frames and even the wooden pane doors.


What are your favorite shikumen headers? Share them in the comments section or on the blog’s Facebook page.


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