Conversations: Non Arkaraprasertkul on an anthropologist’s life in a lilong

non.arkaraprasertkulTrained as an architect, urban designer, historian and ethnographic filmmaker, Non Arkaraprasertkul is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology at Harvard, and is currently conducting field research in Shanghai. For years, I’ve read Non’s extensive publications on Shanghai’s urban heritage, housing and traditionalism, and the sense of space in the metropolis, which are a testament to his lengthy interest and expertise on the subject. So it was a pleasure to finally meet him as he settled into a lovely lilong compound, and discuss our respective works over endless beers. Non’s diverse and relevant background make him a walking encyclopedia on the concept of lilongs and its community culture within the broader preservation debate. Here, we discuss his scope and methods of research, the significance of his living quarters – the ‘pavilion’ room – and this thoughts on the prospects of heritage preservation in Shanghai.


SAT: You’ve been writing about Shanghai’s old neighborhoods and lilongs for years now. What sparked your interest?

NA: I first came to Shanghai in 2006 with a group of MIT faculty and graduate students to take part in the Beijing Urban Design Studio with Tsinghua University. I was a master’s student at MIT at the time. Our first stop was Shanghai because our professors believed that we should begin our 2-month-long journey with something our western urban sensibilities could relate to, namely modernity. I was — and still am — intrigued by the way in which the Shanghai’s century-old neighborhoods accommodate their residents in contemporary times despite massive social and urban changes. I have been coming back to Shanghai every year, except in 2010, to study them!

Non Arkaraprasertkul 03

Photo by Sue Anne Tay

SAT: Now you are living in a Shanghai lilong as part of your research. Can you paint a picture of the dynamics of the community you live in? 

NA: I am living in what you can technically refer to as a gated-community – there are two gates on both sides of the compound that residents come in and out of, which are also open to outside pedestrians and passersby who cut through. Built in the early 1930s, there are currently 183 buildings still standing in this new-styled lilong neighborhood accommodating around 950 households (ranging from one to 3 persons in a household) and almost 3,000 residents.

Among the households, only a very small number are original owners who bought their homes in the early 1930s. Others left the Mainland China for Taiwan and Hong Kong before the Communist Party takeover in 1949. After which the housing stocks were confiscated and re-distributed to workers. The structure of the community then changed rapidly to accommodate about 3-4 times more residents than what it was originally planned for.

More than two-thirds of the current residents — the “old residents” — moved in between 1960s-80s when urban citizens were allowed to trade their rooms. Today, about a third of the residents are renting rooms from these old residents. These renters — myself included — are from all over: young Shanghainese, migrant workers, and foreigners. What defines the dynamic of this community is precisely the co-existence of old residents and newcomers who have different occupations, interests, and lifestyles.


Photo by Sue Anne Tay

SAT: Take me through a typical day for you in terms of how you collect ethnography research and interact with your neighbors at large. 

NA: We anthropologists do what we call “ethnography,” which to me, is a full-time job. Ethnography consists of several qualitative research methods, aiming at collecting the empirical data on human societies and cultures. One of the main methods is what we call “participant observations,” which is basically how we anthropologists become a part of the community we study in order to learn about the culture of the people we research.

Let me explain what it is through my daily life. I get up very early in the morning, awakened usually by birds chirping and/or neighbors yelling in the lane. By 8 o’clock, I will hear the kettle boiling in the communal kitchen where my elderly neighbors cook their meals precisely at 8am, 11:30am, and 5:30pm — these are the three time markers in my day. I eat breakfast by the stairwell window where I can see people walking through the community via the north gate and take notes of the different characteristics of the lane.

I then walk around the community. Often, I would meet familiar neighbors thanks to the open structure of the lilong lanes. And because most of my neighbors are senior citizens with plenty of free time, lengthy chats are common. I then write up my observations or from any photos/video footage from a camera I carry around. In the afternoon, I usually do the same.

To integrate into the community as part of my daily routine, I join my neighbors at the communal water dispenser and do my food shopping in the lanes. To be more visible, I would often sit in front of my main door on a folding chair. That’s how I get to know my neighbors so they would want to share their stories, yet I respect their privacy and sense of individuality. I may be a researcher but I don’t treat my neighbors like research subjects.

Other times, I’d go to the Municipal Archives and Library to study the community’s history, which I later cross-reference with oral histories from my neighbors. I also meet with experts, architects, planners, and professors etc.

Before I know it, it’s dark so I wrap up by preparing my “daily fieldnotes” from a small notebook where I write keywords to help me recall interesting and important aspects of my daily research, which I would type up — rather extensively. As you can see, ethnography is a real full-time job for me.


Writer Lu Xun had lived in a pavilion room in Shanghai in his earlier years. 

SAT: You live in what is typically referred to as the “pavilion room” or tingzijian (亭子) in a well-preserved and vibrant lilong compound. Share with us the historical and cultural significance space. 

NA: It is a small room next to the stairwell at the back of a lilong house between the first and the second floors. Traditionally, all “service program” (such as the stairs, bathrooms, parking, and storage) are located in the back, north facing part of the house. This preserves the “living program” (such as the court yard, living room, and bedrooms) facing the desirable south.

The living program on the south side requires a high ceiling, while the service program only requires the bare minimum height. The gap between the two ceilings is a practical spot to extend the flight of stairs into a small multi-purpose room, hence the “pavilion room” (probably because it isn’t really a real room in the same way the bedroom or the living room are to tenants but calling it a storage room is also too specific). Residents originally used it as a storage room or guest room.

When the housing market was overheated in the early 20th century, many landlords rented out the pavilion rooms for extra income. However, only the poor would want to live in there because the north side of the house is always cold in the winter and hot in the summer. The room also has no bathroom, kitchen. Basically, it’s the worst spot for living!

But guess who did not mind such conditions: writers and teachers! Revolutionary writers such as Lu Xun (鲁迅), Mao Dun (茅盾), and Ba Jin (巴金) had lived in pavilion rooms at one point of their lives. Under these difficult conditions, they created their great masterpieces! Hence, one can argue that the history of the pavilion room is also part of the history of modern China!

Having lived here for almost a year now, though the conditions are much better today, it’s far from being an ideal place to live in because of aforementioned difficulties.

Shanghai Living Pavilion Room

A taxi driver resting in his pavilion room, 2004. Taken from “Shanghai Living” 《上海人家》by Hu Yang《胡杨》(2005)

SAT: You recently posited that the Shanghai government regards historic preservation of select sites including lilongs as ‘essential to the branding of a city with global ambitions.’ Yet, there is little consideration of how the existing residents of said “historical monuments” fit into the overall architectural preservation of the sites. Hence, we’re seeing an interest in architectural preservation rather than a preservation of culture and way of life. How did you arrive at such a conclusion?

NA: The answer lies in both the planning policy and the historic preservation program. First, you may wonder why designated historic structures are not clustered in groups but scattered around the city. That’s because the Shanghai government handpicks select “worthy” structures to preserve, which makes the “unworthy” structures available for immediate bulldozing.

Hence, you get many “preserved historic sites” left in the middle of surrounding high-rise buildings, and the remaining residents, who are mostly older, find such encroachment to be daunting. They are used to shopping at cheap street markets but due to the new urban development, find themselves surrounded by high-rises where fruits and vegetables in their “modern” supermarkets cost ten times more. The same applies to the residents’ social life they used to share with neighbors from nearby communities. Once the network of cross-community neighbors is gone, remaining residents are unable to maintain the continuity of the sense of neighborhood, which would eventually affect their sense of personhood and they may eventually move.

Second, there’s no effort on the government’s part to maintain the sense of community. The government is only interested in revamping the facade of the edifices but not the living conditions of the residents. For instance, an admirable amount of the investment has been made in renovating my community to its original 1930s condition as part of the “Better City, Better Life” campaign for the World Expo in 2010. My community now looks more beautiful than ever with new pavements, iron gates, brickwork, and so on.

The living condition of the residents, however, remains the same. Some residents have spent their own money to upgrade their homes – these very small rooms that were given to them 20-30 years ago. But not everyone has the money. Yet while some residents may want to stay on in the community, they may also be tempted to follow previous residents who made good money by renting out their rooms. For others unable to benefit from the process, either due to their personal family situation or the undesirable condition of their homes, they become increasingly antagonistic over the perceived unfairness.

These developments may be somehow diversifying the community but is also intensifying tensions among old residents, as well as between them and the newcomers. In the past ten years, there has been a dramatic change in the social structure of the community, as well as the lifestyles introduced by new residents drawn by the superficially good-looking facade. Previously, everyone in my community knew each other. Today, residents only know their neighbors in their own branch lane. “Because people are moving in and out very rapidly, most people here are now strangers to us,” said one of my key informants, who is also a key senior citizen in the community.

Community Living in Shikumen Lanes 02

Photo by Sue Anne Tay

SAT: Do you feel there is recourse then for the preservation of both architecture and community culture together in Shanghai? Or must one be sacrificed for another?

NA: Preservation is not always a good thing. Unlike Rome – which represents the pinnacle of preservation and whose architectural heritage was made of permanent building materials to withstand the test of time — most of the residential architecture in Shanghai, especially the lilong houses, were not built to last this long. Most of the buildings were put together quickly for economic reasons and were built to last just a little fewer than 50 years (some of them were even made of wood) but they have been used for more than twice the length of its life expectancy.

I believe that there is a possibility for the preservation of both architecture and community culture together. For instance, I believe that affordability is a by-product of diversity, an ingredient in almost all great cities. London, where I used to live, is generally expensive, but those who know the city well know exactly where to buy good and cheap stuff. Same goes with Manhattan.

Community Living in Shikumen Lanes 01

Photo by Sue Anne Tay

The issue here is, even though Shanghai technically belongs to everyone, no one with income lower than that of the upper middle class would want to travel to the city if it becomes too expensive. Not only that, the monotony of having just one class of residents in the city is a kiss of death for urban livability. For instance, if the only method of preservation is one that emphasizes architecture at the expense of older residents who become displaced (even if they want to be displaced for the money) we will end up with a proto-upper middle class city that lacks diversity and community culture. I think we shouldn’t just aim for just preservation of architecture and culture, we should aim for diversity. I don’t believe that the winner-takes-all approach is correct. I believe that if we create a livable environment for the residents, they would want to stick around to tell stories of their past to the younger generation and the newcomers to the city. Isn’t that what preservation is all about?

People criticize the “Disney Land” approach to preservation simply because it only preserves the architectural façade but not the social structure. Thus, most people who go to a renovated lilong neighborhood do not know about the history of the place apart from the apparent fact that they “look old and different” from the high-rise buildings around it. I believe that the new and the old can co-exist. The old residents are also happy to see the city grow and develop, and they want to be a part of it despite their age. So it is unfair to think that because they are old and probably poor, they shouldn’t be living in the city center. In fact, because they are old and know the place well, they care most for the place. Going back to what the urbanist Jane Jacobs used to say, the sense of belonging “from within” is precisely what creates the sense of safety and community – not the security cameras and guides in pretentious old-looking uniforms hired to symbolize, in the most superficial way, some sense of history.

Visit Conversations to learn more about the work of other artists and researchers on Shanghai.



  • Reply July 10, 2014

    Patrick Cranley

    Terrific article, Sue Anne. Non’s work is very valuable, as is yours. Keep ’em coming!

    • Reply July 11, 2014

      Sue Anne

      Thanks Patrick, we’re all in this together!

  • Reply October 3, 2014


    I missed this piece and read it only now. What a great interview!

    • Reply October 12, 2014

      Sue Anne

      Thanks Katya! Do reach out to Non if you like.

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